In his 27 years as a member of congress, one of Ron Dellums’s proudest achievements was steering through sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid regime. But the devastation of apartheid is quickly being dwarfed by aids, a disease that last year alone killed more than 2 million Africans and has, in total, orphaned 10 million african children. In a decade, that figure is expected to quadruple. ‘Stop to think about 40 million orphans on the continent of Africa,’ Dellums said in a gathering of mostly black leaders in Washington last week.
Even though he is no longer in Congress, Dellums is campaigning hard for the AIDS Marshall Plan for Africa, a congressional bill that would pump $200 million a year into the fight against the disease. But in Dellums’s mind, that’s just the thin edge of the wedge. “What’s needed is a groundswell on the scale of the civil rights movement, but at the moment,” he lamented, “there is no such passion.”
Dellums has always supported AIDS issues, yet the sheer scale of the catastrophe in Africa has humbled and motivated him. In his first speech as chairman of Constituency for Africa, a lobbying and education group with high-profile board members such as Andrew Young, David Dinkins, and Jack Kemp, Dellums apologized for not foreseeing the scale of AIDS, and he committed CFA to making the epidemic one of its top priorities. The day after the Washington meeting, Dellums flew to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to drum up funds. “Coca-Cola, where’s your money?” he asked. “Mobil and Shell, where’s your money?”
And where’s America’s money? Last month, Vice President Al Gore announced that the administration will ask Congress for an additional $150 million to fight AIDS abroad—mostly for Africa—on top of the $200 million the U.S. is already spending. And in last week’s State of the Union address, President Clinton, noting that HIV is now killing 10 times more Africans than war, proposed “a tax credit to speed the development of vaccines for diseases like malaria, TB, and AIDS.” Assuming that the administration and Dellums can convince Congress to agree to both their proposals, the U.S. would spend about $500 million a year on AIDS in Africa.
Yet, for an epidemic that has infected more than a fifth of all adults in at least four African countries, the money is a pittance, a mere sliver of the 10 to 15 billion dollars America poured into Kosovo. That’s why Dellums wants “debt relief tied to a plan to eradicate AIDS,” a phrase he repeats like a mantra, along with the statistic that Africa pays an “obscene” $30 billion annually servicing its debt. In Zimbabwe, where one in four adults is HIV infected, debt payments consume more than 35 percent of the national budget.
As the debt issue demonstrates, AIDS is such a mammoth disaster that it’s impossible to combat it without also addressing Africa’s underlying problems. For many, that might be a reason to despair, because of Africa’s chronic poverty, wars, and political corruption. But for Dellums, it’s a reason to hope. Precisely because the epidemic is so cataclysmic, “AIDS has the capacity to create unity and cooperation, to take us beyond tribalism . . . and to allow us to do politically what we might not have been able to do otherwise.”
Dellums knows his Marshall Plan “won’t solve AIDS in Africa,” but he insists it will draw in matching funds from wealthy nations and corporations. And he has no patience for the carping that it isn’t everything. Recalling his years on the Armed Services Committee, Dellums said, “Companies that got those $30 billion contracts never said the initial $200 million research grant was not enough. They got their nose under the tent, and that’s what we need to do.”
But can even that be accomplished? After Gore announced the $150 million proposal, Republican presidential candidates attacked the idea. Will the Republicans, who often loathe international aid and have scant voter support among blacks, go along with money for AIDS in Africa? There are signs that they might. James Leach, the Iowa Republican who chairs the House Banking Committee, last week proposed a World Bank AIDS fund seeded by the U.S. Other Republicans might join him—with pressure from the grassroots. But that’s why veteran AIDS activist Alexander Robinson, who attended last week’s meeting, is worried. “We’ve just gotten attention focused on AIDS in the African American communities,” he says, referring to a flurry of public and private initiatives over the last two years. “Are we now prepared to take on this larger issue?”
“We have to,” says Barbara Lee, who succeeded Dellums in Congress and is spearheading the campaign to pass the AIDS Marshall Plan for Africa. Noting that in the 152 days since she introduced the bill, HIV has killed more than 950,000, Lee says, “It’s about survival, the survival of a people.”
Research intern: Elinore Longobardi
Additional articles on AIDs by Mark Schoofs.