Wed 31 Aug 2005
Filed under: Health / AIDS,News
August 28: Bangkok: Who says the Millennium Development Goals or MDGs can be boring? Not if a military regime comes in the way of one of the global targets prescribed by the United Nations–halting the spread of AIDS by 2015.
And more so if that regime happens to be the dictatorship that has for over 40 years dominated life in Burma, a once prosperous South-east Asian country, now reduced to poverty.
Rangoon’s junta appears to have preferred retaining the iron grip with which it represses its people over plans by a leading international funding agency to help Burma combat the threat of a worsening spread of HIV.
The outcome was an unprecedented decision by the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. It cancelled all its grants to Burma and quit in August. ”This is the first time that the Global Fund has cancelled grants,” Jon Liden, spokesman for the Geneva-based body, told IPS.
It is a move that places the Burmese regime as one of the world’s worst dictatorships since the Global Fund finances programmes on AIDS, TB and malaria in other countries ruled by dictators.
Even Burma’s regional neighbours that have communist regimes, Vietnam and Laos, are still part of this recently-created initiative to pour in new money to help developing countries stop millions of people dying due to AIDS, TB and malaria.
The three-year-old fund has approved grants to 127 countries to scale-up the drive against the three pandemics worldwide. Close to 3.1 billion US dollars were distributed for the Global Fund-approved programmes during the first two years, states a background note.
”Of the 3.1 billion committed over the first two years, 56 percent goes to fight HIV/AIDS, while 13 percent goes to fight TB and 31 percent to malaria,” adds the note. ”Of the HIV/AIDS grants, one half of the money is dedicated towards treatment and care, while the other half is for financing prevention activities and HIV testing”.
These funds to combat the three pandemics are deemed pivotal for countries to achieve the MDG target of halting the spread of the three killer diseases by 2015.
The other seven time-bound targets governments pledged, as part of the MDGs, included halving the number of people living in extreme poverty, achieving gender equality in schools and reducing child mortality.
”The Global Fund-financed programmes can function in any country as long as the government doesn’t actively try to obstruct them,” says Liden.
Burma’s junta, however, proved the exception even after this fund had approved grants totalling 98.4 million dollars for a five-year period. Over half that amount, some 54.3 million dollars, was earmarked for combating AIDS.
Among the programmes the Global Fund was to support in Myanmar, as the junta has renamed Burma, were those designed to reduce the spread of HIV through education, care and support services. Groups identified drug users, sex workers, people with HIV, youth between 15-24 years in towns, and sections of the general population.
But little of that could get underway due to travel restrictions that Rangoon has imposed on all U.N. agencies and international humanitarian groups. Nearly every aspect of the treatment scale-up in Myanmar required travel and the restrictions imposed resulted in ”weeks of delay” to get permits, says Liden.
The fund’s decision to terminate its relationship with Rangoon has raised questions about the space available for humanitarian work in a climate of oppression. ”Because of the complications of complexity in Myanmar, a sufficient amount of flexibility is needed to deal with problems as they come up,” says Charles Petrie, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) resident representative in Burma.
”The Global Fund was very strict because of the time-bound nature of the grants, and so I understand the decision they made,” he explained during an interview by phone from Rangoon. ” But humanitarian action is possible in Myanmar,” he added.
The void left by the fund comes at a time when Burma has emerged as a country on the verge of exploding with HIV rates that could undermine its already weak efforts to contain the pandemic in the region.
Currently, there are an estimated 170,000 to 620,000 people living with HIV in Burma, according to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). And the infection rate among its 50 million people is 1.3 percent, second in South-east Asia only to Cambodia, which has infection rates of over two percent.
In July, a report by the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank, painted a bleaker picture — that Burma is the main source of all strains of HIV that have spread across Asia, from Kazakhstan on one end to southern Vietnam, on the other.
In some northern parts of the country, HIV infection rates were ”as high as 77 percent,” the report revealed, and added further that heroin routes originating from Burma and crossing the region have been the ”greatest contributor of new types of HIV in the world”.
Yet Rangoon’s junta chose to keep the country’s AIDS crisis under wraps till late 2003, when Khin Nyunt, a high ranking general who was appointed prime minister, broke the silence on the subject, consequently enabling humanitarian agencies to pursue anti-AIDS programmes openly.
The substantial amount pledged by the Global Fund was seen as welcome relief for voluntary agencies such as World Vision. ”The Fund provided a great deal of hope for the people who were going to benefit, including those with HIV,” Roger Walker, head of World Vision’s office in Burma, told IPS.
”If we cannot find replacement funds, the hopes of these people will be dashed,” he added.
Rangoon has displayed concern at the Global Fund quitting Burma, but there is hardly a hint of its own role for circumstance leading to that decision. The junta’s HIV/AIDS Country Coordinating Mechanism (CCM) issued a statement describing the cancellation of funds as ”unjust”.
”The CCM concludes that this termination is against the values and principles embodied in the United Nations Millennium Declaration, to which the Global Fund also owes its existence,” said the statement.