Tuesday, January 25, 2000

The White House this month launched a campaign to spotlight Africa’s two most deadly epidemics war and AIDS. Unfortunately, the Clinton administration appears more inclined to offer Africa catchy sound bites than constructive proposals that will significantly help the continent.

Monday marked the beginning of a week-long session at the U.N. Security Council chaired by the United States that focuses on the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The White House’s decision to bring the war in the Congo to the world’s attention is certainly positive, but the effort is tinged with a Clintonesque brand of hypocrisy. According to press reports, the White House has been blocking efforts to send a peacekeeping force into the Congo, which makes its rhetorical efforts to raise consciousness on the issue seem rather empty. It is par for the course, however.

And on Jan. 10, Al Gore became the first U.S. vice president to preside over a meeting of the United Nations Security Council. In that meeting, Mr. Gore said he would ask Congress for $150 million to fight the spread of AIDS in Africa and other infectious diseases in the developing world. Although initiatives to help the AIDS ravaged continent are needed, Mr. Gore’s pledge has the hallmarks of a political move and should be put in its proper context.

In 1997, South Africa passed a bill which would give it license to import and produce generic pharmaceuticals at a fraction of what they would cost to purchase from the U.S. firms that produce these drugs under patent protections. Since its passage, Mr. Gore has pressured South Africa to revise the law by threatening to withhold U.S. aid. Mr. Gore’s pressure on South Africa incensed some AIDS and homosexual activists and leaders of the black community two important sources of Democratic support.

ACT-UP, for example, became Mr. Gore’s unlikely nemesis. Activists from the group disrupted nearly every campaign event attended by the hapless veep. After he had become sufficiently spooked by ACT-UP’s hostile campaign, Mr. Gore made a pledge he hoped would placate the group. In July of last year, Mr. Gore promised to earmark about $100 million to fight the spread of AIDS in Africa.

ACT-UP’s campaign against Mr. Gore, therefore, is the source of the vice president’s multimillion pledge to the continent. The political expediency under which it was made and the lack of details Mr. Gore has given regarding the proposal should give taxpayers pause.

AIDS is wreaking tremendous economic and human costs in sub-Saharan Africa. In 1998, AIDS caused roughly 2.2 million deaths in the region. Every day, 11,000 Africans contract HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Considering the dimension of the problems, every aid dollar is precious.

Under Mr. Gore’s proposal, $10 million will be spent on programs to stop discrimination against people with HIV. This type of discrimination is certainly regrettable, but it seems foolhardy to earmark badly needed funding for a piece of political correctness that will do nothing to slow the spread of AIDS. Politically, this $10 million makes a great deal of sense, however, since it will surely please ACT-UP activists.

Another $90 million will be used for other education, prevention and treatment programs, including $10 million to help care for the millions of children orphaned by AIDS. The other $50 million will be used to fund research, purchase and distribution of drugs to fight other diseases, such as malaria, hepatitis B, yellow fever and tuberculosis.

What Mr. Gore hasn’t specified, however, is how this money will be funneled to Africa. If governments are intended to distribute it, then the $100 million intended to help Africans could be used to enrich bureaucrats.

Mr. Gore should instead propose that the $100 million be used to fund private sector and non-governmental projects that are helping to prevent the spread of AIDS in Africa. The drug manufacturer Bristol-Myers Squibb, for example, has a five-year, $100 million project in Africa to fund AIDS-research trials, provide training for 200 physicians and help non-governmental organizations improve community AIDS-prevention programs.

Although this private sector approach probably doesn’t have the political appeal Mr. Gore is looking for, and would surely not impress ACT-UP, it would go further in helping Africa. This, after all, should be the White House’s chief priority. The beleaguered continent deserves more than Clintonesque sound bites.

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