03/09/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bailouts: A Hedge we Should be Funding

As the Senate debates how many stimulus angels it can fit on a pin, and corporate executives continue to get caught using bailout money to score hookers and blow give themselves perks, the New York Times shared some incredibly distressing news:

Because of the economic downturn, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria is running short of money, global business and health leaders said last week. Pledges to the fund from donor nations are running about $5 billion short of what is needed through 2010, Rajat Gupta, the chairman of the fund's board, said in a conference call with reporters from Davos, Switzerland.

One of the last rounds of support for poor countries' disease-fighting programs was postponed, another was cut by 10 percent and countries making requests were told to expect 25 percent cuts. "I'm hopeful and confident that donors will continue to finance this," Mr. Gupta said, promising to scrutinize expenditures carefully and "tighten our belts.

Just to put this in perspective, the Global Fund does a number of essential things (and does them incredibly well). It distributes HIV/AIDS drugs to those (individuals and countries alike) unable to afford them, working with governments to ensure equitable distribution and follow-up care. It identifies and isolates TB outbreaks. It provides those in malarial zones with millions of mosquito nets. If I'm not mistaken, it also has helped fund the new anti-malaria vaccine that is looking so promising.

Here are a few statistics from the Global Fund's website. As of December 1, the Fund had
  • provided 2 million people with HIV/AIDS anti-retroviral treatment;
  • offered 62 million people HIV counseling and testing sessions;
  • helped 3.2 million [AIDS] orphans, providing them medical services, education and community care;
  • distributed 70 million bed nets to protect families from transmission of malaria, thus becoming the largest financier of insecticide-treated bed nets in the world;
  • delivered 74 million malaria drug treatments;
  • detected and treated 4.6 million cases of infected TB.
But other than all that, well, not so much. I mean gold-plated toilets and Vegas junkets are far more important than any of that. Jeffrey Sachs, who participated in Gupta's conference call, put it better than I can:

The poor are refused $5 billion, he said angrily, while wealthy countries have found $3 trillion for bank bailouts and Wall Street bankers awarded themselves $18 billion in holiday bonuses while accepting those bailouts."This is absolutely in violation of the life and death pledges that the rich world made to the poor," he said. "I would suggest the administration reclaim those bonuses and put the money into the Global Fund immediately."

Because it's a far, far better use of taxpayer money to fly executives to Cabo San Lucas or wherever they're going these days. Henry Paulson, white courtesy phone, please.

I also should note that the slow starvation of the Global Fund is another example of how UN bashers can have it both ways. When the neoconservatives start talking about the failures of the UN (and to be clear, there are plenty), they never mention the Global Fund or other such successful ventures. Instead they focus on the General Assembly, the UN Human Rights Council, and other obviously dysfunctional bodies. But when the money dries up for these initiatives, they self-righteously use them as another example of something that has gone wrong with the UN -- even though it's the member states that are shutting off the spigot.

To be fair, such criticism should not extend to former President Bush, who actually demonstrated leadership on HIV/AIDS through the establishment of PEPFAR, and his Administration's strong financial support for the Global Fund. But it also would be a mistake not to highlight the fact that we're now in this mess because of his extraordinarily incompetent handling of the economy.

The funding crisis now facing the Global Fund needs to be on President Obama and Secretary Clinton's radar screen. But it's going to take more than just U.S. action. A good start would be putting it on the agenda of the London meeting of the G-20. After all, it's hard to promote "stability, growth, and jobs" if an effective agency doesn't have the funds necessary to keep people from dying.

To close, take a look at Bill Gates's talk at the TED conference yesterday (h/t UN Dispatch). He highlights the dangers facing those in malarial zones (go to about 2:52), and seriously freaks out the audience by releasing mosquitos (starts at about 5:12):

Money quote: "There's no reason that only poor people should have the experience" of living with mosquitoes. As he notes, more money goes into baldness drugs (and, I'm guessing, anti-erectile dysfunction drugs) than into malaria eradication. The Global Fund was supposed to help this. But now it doesn't have the funds it needs.

Oh, and guess who the biggest beneficiaries of Propecia and Viagra are? Wealthy bankers and hedge fund managers! Because, hey, if you don't look good, you're gonna have more trouble scoring hookers and blow.

And bailouts.