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How Washington puts profits before helping Africa's poor
Condemned to death and disease

July 18, 2003 | Page 5

Eric Ruder reports on the devastation of Africa in the wake of George W. Bush's visit.

"WE CARE deeply about the plight of the African citizen," George W. Bush said on his recent trip to Africa. "When we see starvation, we don't turn our back, we act." Liar!

Like his predecessors in the White House, Bush has proven by his actions that the U.S. government could not care less about the people of Africa. Washington's policy toward the continent isn't determined by compassion, but naked self-interest and cynical political maneuvering.

Take, for example, Bush's promise, made in the State of the Union address, to spend $15 billion to help combat the spread of AIDS in Africa. There's less to this promise than meets the eye.

First, the spending will be spread out over five years, and the figure of $15 billion includes already existing spending. Second, even though Bush signed legislation in May authorizing $3 billion for fighting AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, his own budget proposal only allocates about $1.5 billion for on-the-ground delivery of AIDS services. Of this, a paltry $200 million will end up in the Global AIDS Fund, which is widely regarded as the most effective weapon against the deadly disease.

Why would Bush stiff the Global AIDS Fund? Because he'd rather steer money toward the pet projects of his Christian Right pals, who preach abstinence and despise "safe sex" education and condom distribution. This is an appalling manipulation of needed funds to suit Bush's reactionary domestic agenda.

More than 70 percent of people with HIV/AIDS worldwide live in sub-Saharan Africa. AIDS is killing 9,000 people a day.

Given this dire emergency, even the World Trade Organization (WTO) decided at its November 2001 meeting that WTO patent rules shouldn't compromise any country's right to "protect public health and, in particular, to promote access to medicines for all." But the Bush administration--like the Clinton administration before it--went to bat for the giant drug companies that fill its campaign coffers.

Bush fought any blanket exemptions to allow poor countries in Africa and elsewhere to produce their own AIDS drugs--instead requiring each country to file an individual request. This will add years onto the process of getting cheap AIDS drugs to the people who need them--and it completely undermines countries that don't have advanced enough industry to produce these sophisticated drugs.

To add insult to injury, Bush named Randall Tobias, former CEO at pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and a major Republican Party contributor, to head up his new AIDS program. "This raises serious questions of conflict of interest and the priorities of the White House," said Paul Zeitz, director of the Global AIDS Alliance. If Tobias acts as a watchdog for the pharmaceutical industry, "Africans will be left with less medicine, and more will die," Zeitz said.

But AIDS policy is only one way that U.S. policy towards Africa shows a pattern of blind pursuit of profit and callous disregard for human life. More than half of sub-Saharan Africa's 600 million people live on less than $1 a day. "The great paradox of our time is that the massive suffering of the world's poor--from disease, hunger, unsafe water and more--could be readily overcome with just a modicum of help from the richest countries," write Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs and Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, director of the United Nations' 2003 Human Development Report.

"The amazing fact is that financial assistance of up to seven-tenths of 1 percent of wealthy nations' annual economic output--aid totaling roughly $175 billion at today's income levels--would, if used effectively by the recipient countries, make it possible to control the great pandemic diseases of AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria; increase food productivity of impoverished farmers in the tropics; ensure that children are in school rather than at work; and enable poor households to obtain at least minimally acceptable access to safe drinking water."

In truth, the U.S. government on its own could pay the $175 billion price tag--that's less than half of what the U.S. spends on its military. But instead, money flows in the other direction--from poor to rich.

Every year, the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa pay $14.5 billion in interest and debt repayments to international banks and institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). They receive around $12.7 billion in foreign aid.

In addition, the World Bank and IMF impose "structural adjustment" policies that force governments in poor countries to open up their economies to plunder by foreign investors. Niger, Mali, Zambia, Sierra Leone and Malawi all spend as much or more on debt service than on health care--despite having some of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS infection and infant mortality in the world.

And the U.S. has spent many times more than this waging war on Iraq--about $70 billion and counting. Bush can talk about how much he cares about Africa's poor. But he proves in practice every day that his administration will fight for profits over human life.

The great food aid fraud

WHEN POLITICIANS and pundits look for the cause of Africa's poverty, they often point to ethnic wars driven by ancient "tribal feuds"--an explanation that quickly descends into racism. The truth lies elsewhere, according to Richard Joseph, director of African studies at Northwestern University.

"Most African countries were sites of proxy Cold War conflicts, and the deep fissures in Congo, Liberia, Somalia and Sudan can be traced to the years when Eastern and Western nations cynically pursued their interests at Africa's expense," wrote Joseph in the Chicago Tribune.

U.S. pursuit of its own interests to the detriment of African nations continues to this day. Take the seemingly benevolent grants of food aid to African countries by the U.S. "While the other major donors provide food aid in the form of money, which the World Food Program can use to buy supplies in local markets, thus helping indigenous farmers while feeding the starving, the U.S. insists on sending its own produce," wrote George Monbiot in Britain's Guardian newspaper.

"This program, the government states with breathtaking frankness, is 'designed to develop and expand commercial outlets for U.S. commodities.' The result is that the major recipients are not the nations in greatest need, but the nations which can, again in the words of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 'demonstrate the potential to become commercial markets' for U.S. farm products."

Bush faces protests on South Africa trip

Dave Renton reports from Africa.

LARGE PROTESTS greeted George W. Bush's visit to Southern Africa in early July.

Some 5,000 people demonstrated in the South African cities of Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town in protests called by the Anti-War Coalition, and backed by the Anti-Privatization Forum, Landless People's Movement, COSATU union federation and other organizations. Dennis Brutus, a former political prisoner under South Africa's apartheid regime and now a leading figure in the global justice movement, told the crowd in Johannesburg, "Bush is here to reintroduce colonialism to Africa."

To underline its contempt for opponents, the Bush White House snubbed former South African President Nelson Mandela because of his criticism of the U.S. war on Iraq. There are many issues that Bush might have chosen to highlight in Africa. One is the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has seen U.S. allies Rwanda and Uganda establish proxy states to plunder Congo's resources. Millions have died.

A concern for human rights might have brought Bush to war-torn Liberia. But instead of visiting either of these countries, Bush made his way to South Africa and Botswana, two of the richest countries in the region.

Before he arrived, the South African media speculated that the purpose of Bush's visit was to put pressure on South African President Thabo Mbeki. In recent years, Mbeki has increasingly sought to act as the gateway to Africa for Western governments, encouraging South African military interventions and promoting South African "parastatals"--giant companies such as De Beers and Anglo-American.

Mbeki has done his best to work with the Bush administration. In spite of mass opposition among the South African population, he refused to openly criticize the U.S. war on Iraq and encouraged the South African media to take a neutral stance.

On this trip, Bush was expected to criticize Mbeki for not doing enough to oppose Robert Mugabe and his one-party dictatorship in nearby Zimbabwe. Instead, Bush appeared to support Mbeki's more cautious approach--bringing protests from Zimbwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

Most socialists oppose Mugabe's dictatorship, but no one looks to the U.S. for hope. Back in Pretoria, the message of the crowd was clear: "Phansi Bush"--down with Bush, down with privatization, down with the whole neoliberal agenda.

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