A major international conference on global AIDS policy is underway in Austria this week, and there appears to be a growing rift over funding by rich nations. On Sunday, hundreds of people marched through the conference halls demanding rich nations meet their pledges to ensure universal access to AIDS treatment. We go to Vienna to speak with Stephen Lewis, the former special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa and co-founder of AIDS-Free World. "It’s almost beyond the capacity of the mind to cope with that George Bush seemingly was more engaged in the battle against HIV than Barack Obama," says Lewis. [includes rush transcript]
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: A major international conference on global AIDS policy is underway in Austria this week, and there appears to be a growing a rift over funding by rich nations. Some 20,000 policymakers, experts and advocates have gathered in Vienna for the weeklong conference. On Sunday, hundreds of people marched through the conference halls demanding rich nations meet their pledges to ensure universal access to AIDS treatment.
Meanwhile, the head of the conference said world leaders lack the political will to ensure that everyone infected with HIV and AIDS gets treatment. Julio Montaner, the president of the International AIDS Society and chair of the conference, criticized G8 countries for failing to meet the UN’s Millennium Development Goals.
JULIO MONTANER: I cannot hide my profound disappointment and deep frustration with the recently concluded GI and G20 meetings in anywhere else but Canada, by failing to take — by failing to take full responsibility for the universal access pledge, and, more importantly, for failing to articulate the next steps to meet not just the six MDGs, but also all of them, because without universal access, there shall be no MDGs by 2015.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, on Monday, former US president Bill Clinton fired back and railed against what he called inefficient spending of AIDS funds and said many countries are misspending foreign aid.
BILL CLINTON: In too many countries, too much money goes to pay for too many people to go to too many meetings and get on too many airplanes and do too many — to provide too much technical assistance. Too much is spent on studies and reports that sit on shelves. And maybe when we got all of the money in the world, this is regrettable, but not tragic, but keep in mind, every dollar we waste today puts a life at risk. It is time for the United States to lead the way and for other governments to do similar soul searching and hardheaded analyses to see how we can take a higher percentage of every country’s foreing aid budget and actually spend it in the countries that the money was appropriated for, on the people the money was designed to help, instead of on the apparatus in the country in question.
AMY GOODMAN: Clinton also called on aid groups to remember that the current economic crisis is putting pressure on donations. A G8 report from last month’s summit of world leaders in Canada acknowledged the AIDS treatment targets will not be met by 2010.
Stephen Lewis is the former special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. He is the co-founder
and co-director of AIDS-Free World, an international advocacy group based here in New York. He’s joining us from the conference in Vienna.
Stephen Lewis, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you respond to President Clinton?
STEPHEN LEWIS: Well, I think it’s probably fair to say, Amy, with a slight variation on his words, that every dollar we waste today puts a life at risk, and every dollar that the United States refuses to commit, having made that commitment in the past, puts another life at risk. You can’t have it both ways. And while my respect for the President is inestimable, I thought that drawing undue attention to inefficiencies — we all acknowledge inefficiencies — and taking issue perhaps rather strongly with the protesters misses the mark.
This is a conference that understands that there are breakthroughs coming. Treatment looks as though it leads to prevention. Just today at the conference, we have an astonishing breakthrough on the discovery of a microbicide. There is far more consciousness of injecting drug use. There is a recognition of the concentrated epidemic about — among men who have sex with men. We are on the cusp of moving the confrontation and subduing of HIV and AIDS forward. And at precisely that moment in time, the G8, in general, and the United States, in particular, decides to flatline and cut back their budgets, and I cannot imagine anything more reprehensible.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And Stephen Lewis, you are the former UN ambassador from Canada to the United Nations. You’re from Canada. The G8 was just held in Canada, and the price tag for that conference for the security was something upwards of a billion dollars. How far short are the G8 countries in their funding pledges for AIDS access — universal access to treatment? And how does this compare overall to funding for the G8 conference?
STEPHEN LEWIS: Well, the G8 conference funding was preposterous. We actually spent more on funding three days of a conference than we pledged for five years of assistance to maternal and child health. So if anybody wants to understand how priorities are out of whack, that’s pretty dramatic.
In terms of the shortfall, we are, at this moment in time, something like $10 billion to $11 billion short of what is required in 2010, and we will continue to be equal or greater amount short in the years between now and 2015. And that, of course, is what is agitating this AIDS conference, because we could be making breakthroughs, and yet the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria will be desperately underfunded at the replenishment conference this fall, and the presidential initiative in the United States is flatlining.
I am, as you’ve identified, a Canadian, but it is hard for any of us to believe, who put so much trust and confidence in the new president of the United States, that this would be happening under the Obama administration. It’s almost beyond the capacity of the mind to cope with that George Bush seemingly was more engaged in the battle against HIV than Barack Obama.
AMY GOODMAN: You said in a news conference just after the G8 summit in your country, in Toronto, that the G8 are congenitally addicted to betraying Africa. Why?
STEPHEN LEWIS: Why? Because the most obvious example recently, although this goes back over thirty, forty or fifty years of structural adjustment programs, berserk and lunatic economic applications, which stripped the social sectors of Africa at the behest of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund — in terms of the G8 governments themselves, in Gleneagles in 2005, they promised solemnly, they signed, they swore in blood, as it were, that they would double the aid to Africa, so that Africa would receive 25 billion additional dollars by 2010. And they have received something like $10 billion to $13 billion, so they aren’t even halfway there. How can that be described as anything other than a betrayal?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And Ambassador Lewis, can you talk more about this microbicide that’s getting a lot of attention now at the conference and around the world?
STEPHEN LEWIS: Yes. We’ve been trying for so long — I say "we," that’s presumptuous. The scientists have been trying for so long to discover a vaccine or a microbicide. A microbicide is a gel or a foam or a cream, vaginally applied for a period of time before and again after intercourse, which can prevent transmission of the virus. And it gives women some significant control over their own sexuality. We have made some breakthroughs. There are intimations of progress in the realm of a vaccine, but we’re still probably many years off.
Today, there was an announcement of a microbicide, a microbicide which draws upon one of the antiretroviral drugs — it’s really very artful and inspired — as a base for the foam or the gel or the cream. And it’s showing over one year a 50 percent protection, and over two-and-a-half years, a 39 percent protection. And that decline in protection is simply a matter of adhering to the regimen, and that can be corrected. But frankly, in the realm of preventive interventions, 39 percent, 50 percent, that’s astonishingly high at the start. And it means that as they refine this microbial gel, it will get better and better, and it is an exciting day for the science against the virus.
AMY GOODMAN: Ambassador Lewis, a World Bank study says payments to girls in poor countries can slow the spread of HIV. Can you explain?
STEPHEN LEWIS: Yes. These are transfer payments from the central government of countries to sustain families where girls are living in child-headed households — that is, households where both parents have been lost to the pandemic of AIDS and the oldest sibling in the family looks after the younger siblings, or households which are looked after by grandmothers, or girls who are having trouble staying in school because they have to leave to look after sick and ailing parents. And if there are transfer payments — and they can be extremely small, they can be just a couple of dollars in the course of a month — it can allow a girl to stay in school; it can allow for some further nutritious food for the family; it can allow the young girl to begin to play too soon, too prematurely in life, an adult role in the absence of parents, but a role which is indispensable to her development and to the family’s survival.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, on this issue of funding, Ambassador Lewis, Clinton, in his comments, said that aid groups should remember that countries are awash in trouble over the economic crisis, that donations are more difficult to come by because of the recession. How has the Obama administration responded to this criticism of funding?
STEPHEN LEWIS: Well, dare I describe that? I better say that I sit on President Clinton’s Health Access Initiative board, and I think what the Clinton Foundation done in Africa — has done in Africa and does in Africa is possibly the most admirable intervention there is. So please take what I’m about to say with the caution with which it’s imbued. That’s a kind of neoliberal position for a neoliberal administration. The truth of the matter is that when the financial crisis hit the United States, President Obama and his colleagues were able to find some trillions of dollars between a combination of stimulus funds, on the one hand, and bailing out the banks, on the other, to maintain some kind of economic equilibrium in the economy. I should point out that the banks are now experiencing large profits again, and the economy is still in terrible shape — witness the unemployment.
What we are asking for — let’s take the Global Fund as an example — is one billion additional dollars per year for three years. That’s less than one-tenth of one percent of the money that’s being spent on stimulus and bailing out the banks. It is so microscopic as to be barely discernible, and yet it would save millions of lives. I go back to President Clinton’s statement that every dollar wasted puts a life at risk. Every dollar the United States refuses to contribute, based on a commitment which was made — President Obama, during the election campaign, said he would provide — and he actually signed this, as did Hillary Clinton, as did Joe Biden — $50 billion over five years for AIDS alone. And they have retreated and backtracked from that dramatically. And forgive me, but that will be counted in human lives.
AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Lewis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention here in the United States recently released a first-of-its-kind analysis showing that 2.1 percent of heterosexuals living in high-poverty urban areas in the United States are infected with HIV. The analysis suggests that many low-income cities across the United States now have generalized HIV epidemics, as defined by the UN Joint Program on HIV/AIDS, UNAIDS. Your response?
STEPHEN LEWIS: Well, that’s, frankly, terrifying and deeply upsetting. The definition of a generalized epidemic is anything over one percent. To think that there are poor urban cores in the United States that have over two percent is amazing. It’s heartbreaking. And, of course, it is particularly pronounced amongst the African American population, and there’s no question that women, African American women, in the prime of their life, in their reproductive years, AIDS has now become the single highest killer, not widely recognized.
So, the United States must have an internal indigenous policy which is as strong as some of the international policies are. And President Obama, to be fair, has just announced a new policy applicable to the United States. The activist advocates, who have achieved so much, are critical of that policy. They don’t think it’s adequately funded, and they’re not sure, they’re not confident, of its implementation. And indeed, President Clinton, in his speech, pointed out that there were some thousands of people on the waiting list for treatment, even in the United States. That again takes one’s breath away.
So you see, on so many fronts, this international emergency, whose carnage is indescribable in the world, with 33 million people still living with AIDS, the passivity, the indifference, the criminal and the delinquence in the response that continues, when we’ve made progress. And we could turn it around. Why, in Heaven’s name, are they slowing down now?
AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Lewis, we want to thank you very much for being with us from Vienna, from the international AIDS conference. He’s former special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, a former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, and co-director of AIDS-Free World, an international AIDS advocacy group that’s based here in New York.