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Good Politics, Good Works

January 31, 2003

Critics seeking to dismiss President Bush's call for more international AIDS funding called it political cover, something to balance the drums of war. But does that matter? Bush has put serious money on the table: $10 billion in new funding over the next five years to help victims of AIDS in poorer nations to whom the costs of antiretroviral drugs are insurmountable.

The president's announcement, in his State of the Union speech, was good politics. Among other things, it enabled him to outflank potential rivals such as Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who began his 2004 presidential campaign with a call for more AIDS funding. And it put a promise of major funding behind a key piece of rhetoric in his speech: the notion that "our calling, as a blessed country, is to make this world better." No problem there.

Scores of relief organizations had lobbied for the increase. A spokesman for one, the British aid agency Oxfam International, said in wonder: "We were surprised and pleased. I mean, only two months ago, we were getting arrested" outside the White House. In Congress, the initiative's principal backers are Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a physician, and Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) and Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles).

Other Western nations should follow suit, and Congress should move swiftly to approve the increased aid, although it should not rubber-stamp the president's plan for distributing it. The administration proposes to funnel only 10% of the new money through the global AIDS fund that United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan set up more than a year ago to coordinate international relief. The lion's share would go to humanitarian initiatives of the administration's own choosing, such as the new Millennium Challenge Account, established to reward countries that meet 16 standards of financial, political and humanitarian progress. There is also some dispute about the proposed division of the funds -- half to pay for costly drug treatments and substantially less for prevention.

Skeptics have criticized the U.N. AIDS fund for inefficiency, but it is overseen by a multilateral board that holds every one of its meetings in public. By contrast, private contractors receiving grants through U.S. agencies often undergo little or no scrutiny and charge up to 30% in administrative fees.

White House officials can't be faulted for wanting tight control over taxpayer dollars. But that should not default to brushing aside victims in countries with less than model governments if ways to use the money effectively are available.

Bush has launched an effort to slow the global economic and social catastrophe of 42 million people infected with the AIDS virus. With Frist behind that effort, Congress surely will carry through.

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