Casting the first stone: the US Christian right’s war on the Global Fund

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When he first announced PEPFAR, President Bush pledged to allocate $1 billion dollars to the Global Fund over the next five years, and recent PEPFAR promotional materials proudly announce that the US Congress has seen fit to increase that funding to an aggregate closer to $2 billion dollars. Earlier this year politicians from both parties in Congress sponsored an amendment to the Global AIDS Bill that would boost next year’s US donation to $866 million.

But fundamentalist religious right wing groups led by James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, and a man named Shepherd Smith, President of the Institute for Youth Development, have lobbied strenuously to deny any increase in funding allocated to the Global Fund.

After the Senate proposed increasing the U.S. contribution to the Global Fund to $866 million in 2007, Dobson went on the attack, claiming that the Fund promotes "legalised prostitution and all kinds of wickedness around the world."

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Then, in a letter sent to Congress on May 23, 2006, Dobson and Smith claimed that any increase in funding would only go to support “needle exchange programs, legalisation of prostitution, and, unbelievably, support for George Soros’ organisations.”

George Soros is a wealthy American involved in many charitable efforts across the globe. During the last election, he also spent considerable sums trying to keep President Bush from becoming re-elected, which explains his repeated role as the bogeyman in the Focus on the Family letter to Congress. The letter even tries to tie Soros to DATA (which has been lobbying for increasing Global Fund support), without making any reference to the fact that DATA is, in fact, the AIDS advocacy organisation founded by Bono (who is a far more popular figure with the Republican Right because of his faith).

Shepherd Smith was at the PEPFAR implementers meeting, dogging representatives of the Global Fund about how it does not support faith-based organisations (which is untrue), and crowing that he was “on a crusade,” he “had helped elect Bush” and he was “going to bring the Global Fund down”.

He helped Dobson and Focus on the Family draft the letter to Congress, which demonstrates that even though they claim to be Christians, they do not always tell the truth. For example, the assertion that faith-based groups are not supported by the Global Fund has been openly contradicted by other evangelicals.

According to Christianity Today, “the Global Fund financially supports more than 73 faith-based organisations, including the Salvation Army, Youth for Christ, and World Vision, a Christian relief agency based in the United States.”

The Focus on the Family letter also claims that “No one knows exactly what The Global Fund does with its money - because it doesn’t publicly reveal all of its sub grantees and how much money they receive,” which is blatantly false. The Global Fund is probably the most transparent donor organisation ever and is anchored upon the principle of accountability.

Other agitation by Focus on the Family has included the claim that a recent investigation of corruption amongst Ugandan ministers responsible for administering Global Fund grants was driven not by good governance, but by a desire within the Global Fund to undermine pro-abstinence forces in Uganda.

At any rate, the letter went out to Congress along with campaign materials sent to evangelicals throughout the US, depicting the Global Fund as promoting legalised prostitution and suggesting that support for the organisation was somehow a betrayal of the President.

Dobson has threatened to return to the airwaves to encourage action against a Congressional deal between Republicans and Democrats to increase support for the Global Fund, revealing the names of the congressional representatives involved in the run-up to November’s congressional elections.

Of course, there is no question that some Global Fund programmes do provide care and support (and decriminalisation) for some groups in societies most at risk — such as sex workers, men who have sex with men and injection drug users, all of which Dobson and Smith and their ilk would prefer to see persecuted and prosecuted (a stoning perhaps?). However, other evangelicals, such as the social activist Tony Campolo, Call to Renewal founder Jim Wallis, and even Pat Robertson signed a different letter in support of the Global Fund.

And according to Christianity Today, Campolo said "it's a minute portion of the funding that would cause any objection in the evangelical community."

Dobson has also attacked PEPFAR for supporting condom distribution, claiming that “80 percent of this money [$4 -$5 billion he claims is earmarked specifically for PEPFAR] is going toward terrible programs that are immoral as well as ineffective. For example, to promote condom distribution, people associated with these government programs have dressed up like condoms and created ceramic sculptures of male genitalia.”

Other conservative Republicans see PEPFAR as the lesser of two evils, and as providing a more easily directed vehicle for ensuring that abstinence-based approaches to prevention are prioritised in Africa. Outside the religious right PEPFAR is frequently characterised as something close to `a vast right-wing conspiracy`, as Hillary Clinton once put it, due to its association with the use of branded antiretrovirals over generics and its ring-fencing of some prevention funds for abstinence-based programmes. But from the evidence of last week’s PEPFAR implementer’s meeting, it’s pragmatism not ideology that dominates the programme’s delivery on the ground.

Whether or not the extreme religious right wins or loses, the controversy has already had knock-on effects. Much of the US jitters over setting financial targets and promising more multilateral support during the UNGASS negotiations earlier this month could be linked to the efforts of Dobson et al (and fears over offending the religious Republican base seen as so important to winning future American elections).

Unfortunately, where the US does not lead, its allies, such as Japan and Australia, are unlikely to go, and international peer pressure to fight HIV and AIDS decreases substantially.

Finally, casting PEPFAR in a partisan light — and as the organisation that Republicans support — is a dangerous game that could backfire and potentially even jeopardise renewal of PEPFAR after the next election.

This is something that Dr. Mark Dybul, acting director of the OGAC, promises won’t happen: “After the Emergency Plan, that commitment will remain. The exact dollar amount or how it will be utilised will be determined in the next year or so; in discussions back home and abroad – as President Bush proposes what his vision would be for the continuing commitment…but there is no question about ongoing commitment. This should be viewed as the first of a new commitment by the American people that will continue beyond the first 5 years.”

Dr. Dybul also noted that the US government runs in four year cycles. But what happens in each cycle really depends upon who is elected to government. If a more liberal administration is elected, there is no guarantee that that the majority of funding won’t rather be channelled over to multilateral organisations. But loss of the Emergency Fund would be great, because regardless of what people may think of some aspects of its prevention policy (to be discussed in a future article), the US bilateral funding agency can mobilise more rapidly than the Global Fund in certain situations.

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