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African groups disappointed by UN AIDS declaration

by Lewis Machipisa

New York, 27 Jun (IPS) -- African civil society groups packed their bags Wednesday to return home distressed that commitments made at this week’s UN General Assembly Special Session on HIV-AIDS would amount to mere rhetoric.

While pleased by the renewed commitment to fight the global pandemic, Moustapha Gueye, director of the African Council of AIDS Services Organisations (AFRICASO) said he was returning to Senegal worried.

“All governments must be held accountable,” he said, or they would take advantage of the fact that the declaration they adopted Wednesday is legally non-binding.

The declaration contains a number of goals to which signatories are expected to aspire. It calls on them to reduce HIV prevalence among people 15 to 24 years old by 25% in the next four years; to halve the incidence of infection among infants by 2010; and to draw up plans for comprehensive health programmes by 2003.

It also urges governments, “without further delay”, to implement the Heavily Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) debt-relief initiative and agree to cancel all bilateral claims against the poorest nations, particularly those affected by HIV-AIDS.

In return, those countries would commit to use the debt relief to finance poverty eradication programmes and HIV-AIDS prevention, treatment, and support efforts.

The declaration also urges wealthy countries to increase development assistance to poorer ones that increase national anti-AIDS funding.

Gueye, however, said the document was “weak on its links to agreed international development targets, and it is questionable how these targets will be achieved without explicit commitments and actions.” Other advocates and activists echoed this sentiment.

Gueye said he had every reason to be concerned. Many African countries have strategies to deal with the disease, he said, but lack the resources to make a serious impact. This would not have been the case, he argued, had donor countries honoured a UN commitment - made more than 30 years ago - to raise development assistance spending to 0.7% of Gross National Product.

Rich countries have repeatedly reiterated that promise, he added, but aid levels have continued to decline.

This time around, Gueye stressed, civil society groups should develop and enforce a comprehensive plan to hold governments’ feet to the fire. “Otherwise, nobody will be held accountable,” he said.

International funds committed to the fight against HIV-AIDS should be managed by “a committee to be set up outside the existing UN structure and not linked to international financial institutions,” he added. “This committee should be made up of representatives of countries commensurate with the burden of the disease borne by the countries and (it should) involve civil society.”

Although the UN special session came “20 years too late” because in that period an officially estimated 22 million have died of AIDS, Gueye said, “I was very proud to see that our African leaders came and (were true to) consensus in the home countries.”

Heads of states from Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Mali, Mauritius, Nigeria, Tanzania, Rwanda, Senegal and Swaziland attended the meeting.

Their participation, said UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, shows that the world is now waking up to the deadly disease. By the end of last year, 36.1 million people worldwide were living with HIV-AIDS, 90% of them in developing countries and 75% in sub-Saharan Africa.

“I hope this level of commitment will spread to Asia where infection rates are increasing,” Annan said. Not a single head of state from Asia attended the conference. “After today, we should have a document setting up a clear battle plan. It is a fight that everyone must be involved in. It is a fight we can’t afford to lose,” Annan said after the talks ended Wednesday.

Also Wednesday, the Security Council nominated Annan to a second term in office.  The UN chief pledged to do more to fight HIV-AIDS and stressed the need to work closely with civil society groups. “We are moving in the right direction,” he said.

Much of Annan’s effort in coming months likely would be devoted to raising funds for his global AIDS fund. He said this would require between $7 billion and $10 billion per year but so far, only $1 billion has been pledged.

Gueye said he appreciated that HIV-AIDS affects all regions of the world but he would have wanted to see the creation of a health fund specifically for Africa “because we are the region most affected. What this conference has achieved is to dilute Africa within the global vision.”

Despite official expressions of solidarity with non-governmental organisations, he added, “we are deeply concerned that the grassroots experiences in Africa have not strategically informed the global process that has led to this (week’s talks) and yet processes such as this affect the lives of millions of Africans, who are either living with HIV-AIDS or are affected or vulnerable.”

Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa welcomed Wednesday’s declaration. “We support the global fund,” he said. “We support it fully. But we think the amounts can be increased. We must continue pleading and arguing our case and hope we get more resources.”

Annan struck a similar chord. Citing figures from Harvard University, he said  that South Africa alone would lose $22 billion in national output by 2010  because of AIDS. In Zambia, employers will spend the equivalent of one-fifth of  the nation’s wage bill on AIDS-related expenses. – SUNS4925

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