Ah yes

Yesterday, I mentioned the explosion in immigrant arrivals in Italy, but couldn’t remember where I read it – I don’t think I read it there for the first time, but here is a BBC link. It looks like almost one third of prisoners in Italy are foreigners – that’s how we treat illegal immigrants, we throw them in jail. Mmm… I do wonder if there would be a more efficient use of taxpayers’ money? I’d love to know what the jailed immigrants end up doing when they are released and/or deported – I know that a lot will attempt the trip again if they’ve been deported, while others will disappear into the masses of immigrants living in dire poverty all across Western Europe.


I also finished reading “The Wisdom of Whores” (I know, finally, but I read more than one book at a time, so this happens often). Elizabeth Pisani is my hero. She has managed to write a book that is both extremely informative and offers a candid, real view into the inner workings of the AIDS industry. A lot of the dynamics that animate the field of development are at work in the AIDS business – but the twist, with this incurable disease, is that people are dying literally every minute, and the sense of urgency is not the same as in, say, micro finance. But I was chuckling throughout, specifically in the chapter entitled “Ants in the Sugar Bowl”, which so accurately describes the crazy ways in which taxpayers’ money is thrown out the window.

Thankfully, as she mentions, a lot of people in “development” function with this sort of consciousness, with a critical and honest approach to their work. I will definitely write more about her book, which I think should be required reading for any young idealist who believes in “changing the world” (i.e. me)

Lastly, I found this nifty little gadget which counts down until the end of the Bush presidency. Seriously, are you not counting the days??

Long Time No Read!

I admit, I have been majorly slacking on the blog front in recent weeks, but I have some excellent reasons (no, really, I do). Following a year long search for the perfect job, I was offered a position as Program Associate for the Vancouver-based Clinton Giustra Sustainable Growth Initiative in early June. Since then, I have been multi tasking more than ever, trying to wrap things up in Paris before moving to Canada, and with World Refugee Day events and all the Niapele work that needed to get accomplished, it was a challenge!

I’ve been in transit since late June, seeing family and friends in various locations before settling in Vancouver – a city that I had never set foot in until this past Monday. Needless to say, since then, it’s been a mad race to find a place to live, figure out my way around, etc. As a result, I unfortunately had to put my blog and other personal endeavors on the back burner for a while. But I’m getting back on the proverbial horse, and will begin writing substantial posts again next week.

If any of you have any Vancouver recommendations for me, let me know! I don’t know anyone or anything here, and welcome any friendly advice.

Since I have been by myself for the better part of this week, I’ve been having meals alone – so as not to feel like a social outcast, I’ve been bringing a book to the various eateries I have graced with my presence. The book in question is entitled “The Wisdom of Whores” by Elizabeth Pisani, and in spite of its seemingly R rated title, it’s a fascinating read. Written by a journalist-cum-epidemiologist who has been involved in the fight against AIDS since the early 90s, it provides a really interesting perspective on HIV/AIDS, and the international response to it. I’m only half way through, and I prefer to have read the whole thing before giving a fuller account of it, but if you’re in need of a summer read that will surely attract raised eyebrows in public settings (trust me on this one), “The Wisdom of Whores” is for you.

The Magnificent Seven

This story hit the media and blogosphere yesterday – seven Republican senators are blocking the re-authorization of PEPFAR, on the grounds that the new proposed strategy strays away from what made PEPFAR a success – up until now, 55% of the funding of this program was to be used strictly for treatment. In its new version, this restriction would be removed, and the budget more than tripled, from $15 billion over 5 years, to $50 billion over the same period of time.

Many media outlets picked up on the blockage by the seven senators (“The Coburn Seven”) – Michael Gerson, whose story I linked above, received a response from Senator Coburn, who reminds us in a few tear jerking paragraphs that he has long been a leader in pushing for HIV/AIDS legislation.

That’s great, Senator Coburn, but why then be so opposed to a bill with overwhelming bipartisan support? A bill meant to save lives? It seems that the “Coburn Seven”‘s opposition to the bill is mainly because funds will be freed up for related initiatives, such as gender empowerment, treatment of other infectious diseases, etc. For someone who cares so much about HIV/AIDS, it seems that Senator Coburn is unaware – or unwilling to admit – the profound implications and consequences on affected societies. People who receive treatment and are given a new lease on life also need assistance to become productive members of society, to regain some form of dignity and purpose in life. Otherwise – as cynical as it sounds – we are merely prolonging existence, not creating solutions.

Mead Over, from the Center for Global Development, has suggestions as to how to further improve the bill – his non-partisan, reasonable, suggestions will hopefully reach the eyes of Senator Coburn. His last point, about earmarking, is worth nothing

CGD’s HIV/AIDS Monitor has recently argued for a relaxation of the earmarks that Senator Coburn wants to reimpose. They found that the earmarks are unnecessarily constraining PEPFAR country teams’ ability to tailor programs to individual country contexts. Because different countries have different epidemics and different needs, imposing an arbitrary spending mandate (even if a global mandate) is not the way to ensure the most effective use of funds. A recent GAO report echoes these findings and the recommendation for pursuing a country-based approach. Removing the treatment earmark would not force country teams to do more prevention, but rather allow them to allocate resources based on available evidence for what is needed in a particular country (not to mention based on host country priorities). Nor would earmarks effectively curb expenditure on consultants and channel money to widows and orphans, as Senator Coburn claims. Under the earmarks, any funding that contributes to treatment, prevention, or care is allocated under these categories, including for example the hiring of consultants for the implementation of treatment programs. And keeping the treatment earmark might in fact reduce funding for widows and orphans because these activities fall under PEPFAR’s “care” category, which could presumably get less funding under a 55 percent treatment mandate.

I agree with Senator Coburn that Congress should insist that its AIDS funding be spent efficiently. However, the way to address Senator Coburn’s concern is not with a return to earmarking, as he promotes, but with explicit and measureable targets like those I suggest above.

AllAfrica.com reports on this story as well, with this fabulous quote

Coburn added: “We are deadly serious about making sure [Pepfar] stays an effective program.”

I hope Senator Coburn didn’t intend that pun.

Oh, and, by the way, Senator Coburn advises John McCain on health issues (for the record, Senator Coburn is anti-gay, pro-life – he is quoted as saying “I favor the death penalty for abortionists,”…etc….)

FP Passport blog also expressed the view that “The Coburn Seven” are misguided – as have been a majority of Republicans since HIV/AIDS became an issue 20 years ago -, and that

When historians sit down to assess the modern conservative movement a generation or two from now, among the most severe tarnishes on the GOP’s legacy will be Guantanamo and record deficits. There also will be the string of painfully ignorant policies the party has held on HIV/AIDS.

I completely agree with this statement. I already said this in my previous post on the war on common sense – History will judge harshly those that refuse to face the reality of the HIV/AIDS pandemic and block or reverse efforts to fight it.

The War on Common Sense

This is incredibly sad. Muslim clerics in Kenya have agreed to campaign against the use of condoms as a means to prevent HIV infection. Over here, the author asks if it’s a war “on common sense”.

“A lot of money is being wasted to poison our community … a huge amount of money is spent on buying condoms, buying immorality,” Sheikh Mohamud Ali, of Garissa district, told IRIN/PlusNews.

The leaders agreed to actively preach against the use and public promotion of condoms as a strategy to contain the pandemic and prevent pregnancy. They also agreed to oppose the distribution of condoms in villages and educational institutions across the northeast […]

The leaders expressed their view that the best way for the youth to avoid HIV was through the observance of Islamic teachings such as fasting, regular prayer and shunning extramarital affairs. They advised men to avoid looking at women, who should dress modestly […]

“After all, we have heard in the past that the Western world is using the condom to eliminate Africans, and Muslims in particular.”

Well, that’s great, isn’t it? More religious leaders who are actively against the use of life saving contraception. Luckily for them, the rate of infection is low in their region (1.4%, compared to 5.1 nation wide). But still, can we afford to back track like this? It’s also extremely unfortunate as people
can pick up on this and assume that this is the position taken by Muslims – which is untrue. In West Africa, some progressive religious leaders are harnessing their influence to have a positive social impact. Meanwhile, there are stories pouring out of the continent on a daily basis about preachers and pastors who condemn HIV/AIDS and infected patients.

In other, completely unrelated news, I read this story about “$2.99 gas

Chrysler’s new incentive program that guarantees consumers who buy one of their new cars or trucks won’t pay more than $2.99 a gallon at the pump for the first three years they own the vehicle.

Random incredibly large SUV

And the author proceeds to tell us that he thinks it’s a “brilliant idea”. I just wrote about how Americans (and Westerners in general) have hard time getting to terms with the fact that their lifestyle and habits will have to – at the very least – be modified. The fact that Chrysler offers this (probably following massively expensive market studies) is very telling – to me, it represents people clinging on to an obsolete way of life. Isn’t it time to move away from cheap gas, precisely because it perpetuates a very unsustainable life style?

The Chrysler offer is going to appeal to people who refuse to face the facts – that the era of cheap gas is over, or nearly over (even if it happens in 20 years, that is not a very long time to contend with). Am I the only one who finds this incredibly near-sighted??

Religion and Modernity

I promise this won’t be a long winded philosophical post about religion in the contemporary world. I just came across different stories which discuss an interesting, salient issue – how should religious leaders respond to the new forces at work in modern society?

This week, the Vatican “provided its latest update on how God’s law is being violated with modern means.” The expanded list of sins, which includes genetic manipulation, pollution and the use of drugs, seems to be the Catholic Church’s latest attempt to adjust its “message” (for lack of a better word) to better address contemporary issues.

Of course, the Catholic Church’s position on condoms and abortion isn’t about to change, but you know, baby steps… It’s interesting to see religions who are – by definition – dogmatic and absolute in their philosophy deal with modernity. For instance, this report highlights the positive social impact that progressive Islamic leaders can have on their communities:

“The draft text of several progressive fatwas were discussed last week by the ulama [Islamic scholars] at the International Consultation on Islam and HIV/AIDS, organised by the charity, Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW), in Johannesburg, South Africa.

One fatwa would approve the use of funds from the zakat (mandatory alms giving) for HIV-positive people, whether Muslims or non-Muslim, regardless of how they contracted the virus, as long as they are poor.

Another fatwa would approve the use of condoms by married discordant couples, where one is HIV-positive and the other is not, to avoid infection.

The findings are not final. As first-opinions, they will be discussed next year at regional and national consultations.”

I find both these stories very compelling – what role will religion have in the 21st century? From my own Western secular perspective, I often find myself at odds with most religious doctrines, but I know that billions around the world find solace in spirituality. I find it very interesting to see religions adapt to the modern world, as an external observer – clearly, the good, the bad and the ugly is coming out of these evolutions, but nonetheless, we should value these paradigm shifts for what they are: a move away from unshakable fundamentalism towards more progressive notions of spirituality, faith and religion, which attempt to give believers the tools necessary to deal with a changing world. This, of course remains elusive –
here is another story which discusses the disinformation spread by some Christian church leaders in Malawi about HIV/AIDS – a very different example from the previous story, but it goes to show how vital it is for religious leaders to be socially (and morally) conscious:

A pastor in southern Malawi recently hit the headlines when he told five HIV-positive people in his church to stop taking antiretroviral (ARV) medication because they had been treated by prayer. Dodgy traditional healers touting their “cures” for AIDS are also proliferating. The government has drawn up legislation, currently before parliament, to muzzle anyone claiming they can cure AIDS. “

Food for thought, really.