Federal tsunami aid hits $425-million… as cash woes hurt African AIDS fight

By Stephanie Nolen
Wednesday, January 12, 2005, page A2 https://www.theglobeandmail.com

JOHANNESBURG — Mercy Otim has watched the international fundraising for tsunami relief with a sense of awe teetering on disbelief.

Ms. Otim, 37, is a Kenyan activist in the Pan-African Treatment Access Movement. She devotes her considerable energy to raising funds for lifesaving anti-retroviral treatment for the estimated three million Kenyans living with HIV-AIDS and the 28 million people across Africa who have the virus.

Always, from international donors and aid agencies, she hears the same refrain: There just isn’t enough money.

International donors have pledged more than $5-billion (U.S.) to tsunami relief, compared with $3.6-billion spent by Western governments on global AIDS last year.

“This has proved the money exists — it’s there,” Ms. Otim observed yesterday. “They can get hands on it quickly when they want to.”

Since the tsunamis struck on Dec. 26, 136,000 people have died of AIDS, 6,500 people a day in Africa alone. The tsunami death toll stands at about 150,000.

While 50,000 children are believed to have been orphaned by the tsunamis, Unicef says 11 million children have been orphaned by AIDS in Africa.

The tsunami-relief pledges may soon equal the total amount, $5.8-billion, that the United Nations received for all humanitarian relief around the world last year.

Across Africa, people such as Ms. Otim and the staff of international-aid agencies are marvelling at the outpouring of money and offers of help for Asia, and wonder why other problems, particularly the AIDS pandemic, have failed to strike the same chord.

“This just confirms that people don’t really know the magnitude of HIV-AIDS,” Ms. Otim said. “It’s a good thing that people can respond to the tsunami disaster and offer assistance, but the HIV problem is much, much worse — our economy is destroyed [just like those in Asia], the people who are sick are the ones who should be working. And the funds are just not there to help people.”

She expressed fear that this outpouring of generosity would have the net effect of drawing funds away from Africa, or bumping the crisis further down on the global agenda.

The outpouring of tsunami funds has Canadian aid agencies astonished. After an intensive fundraising campaign in Canada last year to raise money for the crisis-torn Darfur region of Sudan, where 50,000 people have been killed and 1.5 million people have been driven from their homes, M?decins sans fronti?res (Doctors Without Borders) collected just $350,000 (Canadian) — much less than expected.

Since the tsunamis, and without any advertising, the agency has taken in $5-million.

“It’s been frustrating,” executive director David Morley said. “Is it that Canadians can’t imagine themselves slowly dying of AIDS, can’t imagine being in a desert like Darfur, but they can imagine themselves suddenly dying on a beach because we’ve all been there?”

He said he had the impression from talking to donors that the apolitical nature of this disaster made some more comfortable with giving. “It’s not [for] people fighting each other all the time — and there is a moral judgement that people still make about HIV and AIDS, but there is no moral judgement about being hit by a wave. I feel a slight undercurrent — AIDS is connected with sex and sex is bad. But this is just a wave.”

Oxfam Canada, too, reports it has received $4.3-million in tsunami donations in two weeks, a sum that dwarfs previous fundraising; the agency usually takes in half a million dollars a year for its total emergency and development budget.

There was the Boxing Day factor, of course. “And emergencies are always different — they get a lot of publicity in a short space of time and we get donations from people who are not regular donors, which is good,” spokesman Mark Fried said.

“The challenge is how to channel this into long-term work required for future emergencies.”

Stephen Lewis, the UN’s special envoy for HIV-AIDS in Africa, said he had the impression that the massive media coverage of the tsunamis, the death or injury of a significant number of Canadians, and the close ties of Asian communities in Canada to the region combined to give the public “an overwhelming sense of horror.”

“I absolutely and totally agree with those feelings and the magnitude of response,” he said. “Yet if that could be extended to other realities, it would really be a breakthrough. It does pain me that the pandemic can shift out of the picture so quickly.” Only the British government, he noted, has continued to talk about tsunami relief in the context of a larger shift in development spending.

“If I were Paul Martin at the pledging conference on Tuesday, I would say, Canada is going to up its contribution to this significant number of dollars, and let’s now tackle poverty, disease, environmental disasters and conflict simultaneously, let’s understand you can’t deal with the world, lurching crisis to crisis –that we don’t deny the power and force of the tsunami, but for heaven’s sake, [there are] even worse things happening [in] other places and don’t abandon them.”

Mr. Lewis expressed frustration at the issue of debt relief. The Paris Club of donors met and decided only days after the tsunamis to freeze all debt repayments from the affected countries (many of them prosperous middle-income countries such as Indonesia), and is considering cancelling many debts outright. Yet there has been no large-scale debt cancellation for countries such as Zambia, where more than a quarter of the population has HIV-AIDS and life expectancy has dropped to 33 years of age.

“They’re falling all over themselves with moratorium or cancellation for Southeast Asia, but for sub-Saharan Africa, where it is needed more than anywhere else in the world, they can’t bring themselves to do it — that part of it is ugly,” Mr. Lewis said.

Ms. Otim expressed blunt fears that the rush to pour money into Asia will mean even less for AIDS spending, while aid-agency staff fear that both private and government donations will dry up when the tsunami fervour passes.

This past week, MSF took the unusual step of saying that it would not accept more donations for tsunami relief, that the organization had as much money as it could use.

“We have an ethical responsibility, not to say, ‘We will take your money for one thing and use it for another thing,’ ” Mr. Morley said.

“So when people call up, we talk about the Democratic Republic of Congo [where 31,000 people a month die of preventable causes], about Darfur, the AIDS pandemic.”

Mr. Morley said that 90 per cent of would-be donors agreed that other emergencies and regions are important and went ahead with their plan to give. One man specifically sent in a cheque last week for relief in Darfur, saying he was afraid that crisis was going to be forgotten.

“It’s right that people respond to the tsunami in Asia, but not right in the process to forget the silent tsunamis in Africa,” said Jamie Drummond, director of the lobby group Debt AIDS Trade Africa, a group that had hoped to see debt relief front-and-centre at a coming G8 meetings. Now it fears the tsunamis will top the agenda.

“We could make this tragedy worse, by forgetting Africa in the process.”