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Matthew Kavanagh Headshot

Bush On AIDS: Smoke and Mirrors, and Broken Promises

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"Bush Seeks to Double Spending for AIDS Program" blared the headlines this week. "President Bush should be commended," trumpeted one development organization, for his "vital leadership."

Great... except that Bush's plan ISN'T going to double funding and his press conference was essentially called to spin major broken promises into looking like leadership. Too bad so many took the bait.

In 2003, after a major campaign by activists across the US and around the world, Bush took a historic step in announcing the $15 billion, 5 year President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief or PEPFAR. The US went from spending a few hundred million dollars to putting up billions. And those billions have leveraged billions--countries around the world increased their funding for AIDS along with the US and we made a big leap toward truly addressing the pandemic.

Those billions matter--with literally millions of people who will live because of the treatment, prevention, and care that has been mobilized by the global focus on turning the tide against AIDS. But this week showed that when we aren't pushing them hard, the administration will fall back into big talk and glitzy announcements that do little to help poor people living with HIV and AIDS.

Bush's so-called "doubling" of AIDS funding actually reflects only a tiny increase that's hardly worthy of the world's wealthiest nation. By design the PEPFAR program has scaled up its spending each year--and is actually set to spent billions more than the original plan trying to keep pace with the AIDS pandemic. This year, for example, the White House requested $5.4 billion for global AIDS. Simply continuing this rate for the next five years would give us $27 billion--meaning Bush is asking for an increase of at most about $3 billion over 5 years (a rate that's actually dramatically slower than our current increases that are failing to keep up with the crisis).

Really, then, this week's headlines should have read, "Bush asks Congress to stop increasing AIDS funding so quickly."

This is at a moment when the pandemic is growing at a rate that far outpaces our resources to cope. More people were infected with HIV last year than the year before, which in turn was more than the year before that. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria, meanwhile, is billions of dollars short of what it needs to do its work--and this year the President has proposed decreasing the US contribution by hundreds of millions of dollars.

What's even more disturbing than the basic dollars, though, is that the President this week declared that he'd like to completely disregard the promise he made in 2005. That year, at the G8 meeting in Scotland, Bush and the other G8 leaders promised to ensure universal access to AIDS treatment by 2010.

In the first five years of PEPFAR the goal was to fund treatment for 2 million people--a goal they may get near depending on how you count it. That's about 1/3 of the people in immediate need--which is a just goal since the US controls 1/3 of the global wealth.

But apparently over the next 5 years Bush wants us to give up on the promise of Universal Access. As he got ready for this year's G8, the President suggested that the US should only fund programs to treat ½ million more people. Meaning that, as we move from 6 million people to likely 9 or 10 million people who will need treatment, the US will be helping a smaller and smaller percentage of those in need.

This kind of promise breaking is unworthy of our praise, to say the least.

The real fair US contribution to a global AIDS response over the next 5 years is more like $50 billion. Besides being less than US consumers will spent on bottled water over that same period, it's about 5 months worth of war.

So let's be clear--Bush wants to claim the mantle of global leadership on HIV/AIDS while basically suggesting that the US should do less of its share in the fight. Luckily for people living with HIV and AIDS, he's not the one in charge of appropriating money. Looks like it's up to Congress to rescue the US role on AIDS. Our organization, the Student Global AIDS Campaign, and others will be making sure they step up, but that'd be a lot easier if everyone would stop buying the smoke and mirrors act.