Wed, Nov 05, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Iraq sucks up funds for global aid programs


Donors were generous late last month in pledging billions to rebuild Iraq -- disproportionately generous compared with their donations to fight poverty and AIDS in the world's poorest countries, development and AIDS officials say.

The US$33 billion for Iraq over the next four years, including US$20 billion from the US, is more than 10 times the UN Development Program's (UNDP) annual funds of US$2.8 billion for all underdeveloped countries. The amount is also nearly 10 times the pledges to the Global Fund to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, which kill millions every year.

At development agencies and in poor countries, leaders are worried that the generosity shown to Iraq -- a middle-income country with major oil reserves and a population of about 25 million -- at the donors' conference in Madrid, Spain, will erode resources for other needs.

Stephen Lewis, the UN secretary-general's special envoy for AIDS in Africa, called the contrast between pledges for Iraq and other donations a "weird, discordant upset in the scales of justice."

"I don't deny that Iraqis are under stress and numbers of them are dying tragically. But I am forced to point out that more than 2 million Africans are dying of AIDS every year, and their poverty is vastly more wretched," he said. "There is something fundamentally wrong with the sense of moral balance."

Lewis said he understands the focus on fighting terrorism but that it has introduced "a completely unconscionable distortion" of funding priorities.

"It poisons the sense of international fairness, equity and social justice," he said. "It shouldn't eclipse everything else."

At least 42 million people worldwide are infected with HIV -- more than 28 million of them in sub-Saharan Africa -- and more than 20 million have died, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). With the right funding, WHO says, it could get 3 million more people onto anti-AIDS medication by 2005.

But the Global Fund, which has been promised some US$3.6 billion through 2005, is several billion dollars short of what it needs, Lewis said.

US President George W. Bush has asked Congress for US$20 billion for Iraq's reconstruction and US$2 billion to fight AIDS overseas -- less than expected after a promise of US$15 billion for AIDS over five years. The US Agency for International Development's 2004 budget for Africa, the world's poorest continent, totals US$1.3 billion.

Bush has said that rebuilding Iraq is crucial -- and the costs worth it -- because a stable, prosperous and democratic Iraq could help foster democracy and stability throughout the Middle East. Bush has made the fight against terrorism the central focus of his administration, and stabilizing the Middle East is key to that, he has said.

But in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, economics professor Claude Beauboeuf is concerned that the emphasis on Iraq may breed problems in neglected regions.

"US concern about international terrorism is legitimate. But investment in the struggle against it -- for example, in Iraq -- is disproportionate. To neglect other countries -- like Haiti, where political instability and poverty are increasing -- is to overlook seedbeds of future terrorism," he said.

Julia Taft, director of the UN Development Program's crisis prevention and recovery bureau, is more hopeful but also sees a "total disconnect" between the amounts pledged for Iraq and those for sub-Saharan Africa.

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