HIV/AIDS And Africa: Back To The Drawing Board

HIV/AIDS And Africa: Back To The Drawing Board

By Dr. Chinua Akukwe

After 21 years of dealing with the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa, it appears that Africa has now reached the crossroads. According to the United Nations agency coordinating the pandemic (UNAIDS) nearly 30 million Africans live with HIV/AIDS. More than 21 million Africans have died of AIDS. At least, four African countries–Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and Zimbabwe–have more than 30 percent of their adult population living with HIV/AIDS.  Only 30, 000 Africans have access to life-saving, available anti-retroviral medicines. Despite these unfolding ugly scenarios, Africa is yet to mount or lead a credible fight against the number one developmental crisis in the continent.

On a "positive" note, African leaders committed to spending 15 percent of their national budget on health care at the 2001 Abuja summit on HIV/AIDS. Many African countries have "completed" or are at the "advanced stages" of completing national strategic plans against the epidemic. Many African leaders now "speak out" against the disease. Many African countries are now "streamlining" their HIV/AIDS remedial efforts in their anti-poverty strategies. African leaders are now fine-tuning an ambitious development initiative known as New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD). However, for a continent that is losing its most productive citizens on a daily disease and is dealing with a ballooning AIDS orphan problem, these "positive"  measures are clearly not enough. Africa must go back to the drawing board and come up with a comprehensive strategy and operational mechanism to fight this deadly disease.

What are these HIV/AIDS strategies and operational mechanisms?

The first important strategy is that Africa must stop looking outside the continent for leadership in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Charity must begin at home. I call on the leadership of the African Union, NEPAD, UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), African Development Bank, the civil society and professional groups to create an African body to fight AIDS in the continent. This African led and managed institution will be responsible for setting priorities for both local and external funded activities; resolving lingering issues about access to care; overcoming infrastructure impediments; and, implementing information, education and communication (IEC) strategies. Today, in Africa, any external organization can decide which part of Africa it wants to assist in the fight against HIV/AIDS and the priorities for its assistance. 

The second strategy is that HIV/AIDS must become an integral part of NEPAD. It is not possible to talk about Africa's renaissance or economic growth without paying serious attention to the number one development priority of the continent. The third strategy is that Africa must mobilize its professionals in the continent and Western countries to fight this epidemic. The fourth strategy is for Africa to develop and implement a common approach to developmental assistance from the West. NEPAD is a good start but needs to demonstrate internal capacities and mobilization of resources, and also carry along all key stakeholders, including the civil society.

Regarding operational mechanisms, it is crucial for Africa to focus on two key issues: medical and health related aspects of HIV/AIDS, and, the developmental consequences of HIV/AIDS. The medical and health related aspects of HIV/AIDS include a strong resolution to provide life-saving drugs to Africans living with HIV/AIDS. Anything that stands in the way of this resolution must be tackled jointly by all African governments. In addition, African leaders must be committed to reaching every high risk African with a credible IEC message on how to prevent HIV transmission and how to avoid re-infecting other people if they are already living with the virus.

To deal with the developmental consequences of HIV/AIDS, African leaders should focus on accelerated food production since nutrition is an important facet of the fight against the disease. UNAIDS concluded that the current famine in Southern Africa is related to the ongoing HIV/AIDS epidemic in the region. Coupled with accelerated food production, African leaders should regard the reduction of agricultural subsidies by Western nations as one of their most important developmental strategies. According to the Chief Economist of the World Bank, the average subsidy to every cow in the European Union is now about US$2.50 higher than the daily incomes of Africans where more than 40 percent live on less than one dollar a day. To overcome widespread economic crisis, Africa must trade its way out of poverty.

Additionally, African leaders in the interest of their own people and not due to pressures from donor nations should focus relentlessly on improving the social and economic circumstances of their citizens. Poverty is at the nexus of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa as individuals continue to take calculated behavioral risks in the daily struggle to fend for themselves and their families. Finally, the elimination or drastic reduction of Africa's unsustainable debt in a swap for accelerated expenditures in health care and social services is very crucial in the short-term to create a breathing space for governments struggling to meet the basic needs of their citizens.

After years of living in Washington, DC, I know that nobody will help Africa unless it is ready to help itself. I am also aware that it is highly unlikely that the West will step up its developmental assistance to Africa if there are lingering doubts about the commitment of African governments. I am also aware that if Africa does not mobilize its resources–home and abroad–in the fight against HIV/AIDS, developmental partners will continue to make obligatory gestures rather than substantial commitments. There is growing donor fatigue about HIV/AIDS in the West, and advocates for greater commitment will receive a substantial boost if Africa gets its acts together. Will Africa seize the opportunity to lead the world in the fight against HIV/AIDS?  I hope so.

Dr. Chinua Akukwe, is Member, Board of Directors of the Constituency for Africa (CFA), Washington, DC and Former Vice Chairman, National Council for International Health (NCIH) now known as the Global Health Council, Washington, DC

Dr. Akukwe (cakukwe@att.net) has written extensively about HIV/AIDS and development issues in Africa.