Yes to financing Y2K problem, no to AIDS in Africa

Addis Ababa, 6 Dec (IPS) - While the international community fell over itself to mobilise resources to protect its computers from the millennium bug, the same sense of urgency has not been seen in the search for funds to curb Africa’s AIDS crisis.

The world is estimated to have ploughed between $300 billion  - slightly less than Argentina’s gross domestic product - and $600 billion on a Year 2000 problem that never was.

Yet, more than two decades into the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Africa is still battling to raise even one-fifth of the minimum $3 billion required annually to treat at least half of those infected, and launch effective prevention campaigns.

While the Africa Development Forum 2000 - currently underway in this city - heard of innovative approaches to financing Africa’s AIDS crisis, such as the International Partnership against AIDS in Africa (IPAA), the bottom line is that efforts to find money to control the disease have not kept up with the pace of the epidemic.

Africa currently spends about $300 million on AIDS annually. So far, the biggest single tranche of finance for HIV/AIDS programmes on the continent is coming from the World Bank’s controversial Multi-Country HIV/AIDS Programme (MAP). The $500 million annual facility approved its first loans to Ethiopia and Kenya in September.

Debrework Zewdie, lead AIDS co-ordinator for the World Bank, found it difficult here to sell the loan facility, part of the Bank’s contribution to IPAA, as a better option than waiting for grants.

Formed last year, IPAA is a coalition of African governments, the United Nations system, donors, the private sector and community based organisations working to curtail the spread of HIV, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus that causes AIDS. It is also attempting to increase funding of national AIDS activities from bilateral, international private foundations and national resources.

Zewdie says while it would be ideal if Africa and its partners could immediately raise enough resources “so that loans from the World Bank merely fill the gap”, the reality is otherwise.

The more frightening option would be to “delay our response until programmes can be fully funded”, said Zewdie. “The choice is stark, pay now or pay more later.”

An estimated 10,000 Africans are infected with HIV daily and playing the waiting game means a multiplication of the problem for many nations. Yet, the issue of loans for AIDS has proven one of the most controversial at this conference, convened by the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), the Bank and the Joint UN Programme on AIDS (UNAIDS)

A number of African governments have jumped in to secure loans because of the urgency of the AIDS situation in their countries. They were compelled to make the judgement call between waiting for grants as the epidemic rages or piling up the debts.

“Taking this credit was a very painful but necessary decision,” explained Mohammed Said Abdalla of the National AIDS Control Council in Kenya. “Negotiations with the World Bank were very cordial, but it was hard bargaining.”

On application for the loan, the Kenyans were told it would take 18 months for the process to be completed. Abdalla said they pushed the Bank to ‘fast-track’ the loan because an 18-month wait would have meant the death of 300,000 Kenyans. However, he says, his government took the $50 million loan with the hope that some day the loan would be converted into a grant.

The Bank’s AIDS loan scheme was immediately shot down by youth representative Genevieve Sangudi, who said it was immoral to continue pumping loans into a continent that can no longer repay them.

Michael Kelly, a renowned Zambian educator and HIV/AIDS activist, proposed that rather than giving the loans to African countries, the Bank should give interest-earning loans to pharmaceutical companies and compel them to produce AIDS drugs at affordable prices for developing countries. “Then down the line, you can start squeezing these companies as you have been squeezing us all these decades,” said Kelly.

By December, the Bank expects to approve applications for MAP from Cameroon, Eritrea, Gambia, Ghana and Uganda. Benin, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Zambia and Zimbabwe should qualify by next June.

Yet, some of these countries are already struggling to meet their debt-servicing obligations. In October, the World Bank froze all new loans to Zimbabwe after that country failed to make payments on its loans for six months. Several other African countries are in the Bank’s bad books for loan default, countries such as Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia and Sudan.

Other countries such as Botswana are looking to themselves and have already begun to tackle their AIDS problem. Last year, the country’s president Festus Mogae launched a nationwide programme which has seen 80% of HIV/AIDS funding come from within the country.

Eka Williams, president of the Society of Women and AIDS in Africa notes that any national approach towards accessing finance for HIV/AIDS needs to take gender into consideration.

She said while women are more accepting of roles such as caring for people with HIV/AIDS than men, distribution structures and complex methods of accessing the money mean that the women who need it most, do not get it.

Millie Katana of the Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS in Uganda noted that ironically it often takes the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to trigger African leaders into action on any programmes.

“Usually if the World Bank, the IMF and the international donors do not finance an initiative, then that initiative is not likely to take place at all in Africa.”

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