National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  September 26, 2003

Bono, lead singer of the rock group U2 and advocate for Africa, addresses the media Sept. 16 in Washington. Bishop John H. Ricard of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla., is at left.
-- CNS/Paul Haring
Bono, bishops seek more anti-AIDS funding for Africa

Bush initiative need follow-up, say advocates


President Bush’s words, spoken in the high theater of the annual State of the Union address last January, were eloquent: “Seldom has history offered a greater opportunity to do so much for so many.” Bush was referring to his initiative to combat AIDS on the African continent -- where more than 6,500 people die each day from AIDS and another 9,500 are infected with the HIV virus.

To bipartisan applause, the president called on Congress “to commit $15 billion over the next five years, including nearly $10 billion in new money, to turn the tide against AIDS in the most afflicted nations of Africa and the Caribbean.” The idea is to provide the education needed to prevent additional AIDS transmissions while delivering drugs to those with AIDS who need them to survive.

Eight months later the president’s words sound increasingly hollow to the religious leaders and anti-AIDS activists who made Bush’s “Global Health Initiative” a priority. Administration officials and Congress now balk at making what the groups say is a sufficient down payment on the five-year commitment.

Further, Congress and the administration seem satisfied to fund the administration’s Millennium Challenge Accounts -- a foreign aid program targeted to the poor nations that take steps to combat corruption in their political systems -- at $300-$500 million less than the original $1.3 billion budget request.

“Congress and the president are now shortchanging both initiatives,” said the Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World. “The president’s party has a majority in both houses of Congress, and the amounts at stake are tiny in relation to our government’s budget. So President Bush has it in his power to make good on his promises.”

Among those challenging Congress and the president to “keep America’s promise to Africa” was Pensacola-Tallahassee Bishop John Ricard, chairman of the bishops’ International Policy Committee. “We feel the necessity of keeping everybody’s feet to the fire,” Ricard told NCR.

Following a round of calls on senators and their staff Sept. 16, Ricard joined Irish rock star Bono and other religious leaders -- including Methodist Episcopal Bishop Lawrence Reddick and Evangelical Lutheran Bishop Stephen Paul Bouman -- at a news conference at “the Church of the Presidents,” St. John’s Episcopal, across from the White House. Their plea: Authorize and provide an additional $500 million above what the House has approved for the Millennium Challenge Accounts, and increase AIDS funding by $1 billion over what the Senate has approved.

“Full funding for effective, morally appropriate health programs and [Millennium Challenge Accounts] focused on the poorest countries would make a huge difference in the lives of millions of people,” said Ricard. “It is a scandal that we are the last among industrialized nations in per capita spending on development assistance for the poorest countries.”

The administration says it is committed to funding the AIDS initiative at the promised $15 billion over five years, but that first year funding should be limited because African nations do not have the “capacity” to use the additional $1 billion effectively. The roads, hospitals and treatment centers needed to facilitate the assistance do not exist in many of the regions that need help, according to administration officials.

Bono rejected that argument in an Oval Office meeting with Bush Sept. 16, where he and the president “had a good old row” about the funding levels. Bono said the president “is in for the long term, but the spirit of what was in that State of the Union [message] is what we need now -- that we’ll get the drugs to them on motorcycles or bicycles, if we need to. That spirit is being lost a little in the bureaucracy.” Said Bono: “They’re just not acting fast enough.”

Ricard also rejected the capacity argument. “That’s been the mantra used over and over again -- we really feel that the capacity is there.” Ricard said that Catholic Relief Services and others providing care on the continent have had considerable success, but that additional resources are needed. And to the degree that capacity is a legitimate issue, said Ricard, “there should be funding” to build the infrastructure needed to deliver the assistance.

Further, said Ricard, the new foreign aid initiatives need to be funded at the highest possible levels this year because, in the face of U.S. deficits of more than $500 billion annually, it will be increasingly difficult to fund these programs in future years.

Proponents of increased AIDS funding lost an early test Sept. 10 when the Senate, voting largely on party lines, rejected an amendment offered by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., that would have allowed for additional support for the AIDS initiative.

Supporters of the AIDS initiative and the Millennium Challenge Accounts now hope to convince enough members of the Senate to support an amendment to the foreign aid appropriations bill that would increase funding to those initiatives.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, September 26, 2003

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