Heroes and Villains... A World AIDS Day Reaction

Another World AIDS Day rolls around and yet again we in the AIDS movement are reminded of the ridiculous date chosen to memorialize the Global AIDS struggle. Coming right after the American Holiday of Thanksgiving, everyone here is stuffed and focused on their own families, and generally into Christmas countdown when World AIDS Day rolls around. Could this be another spectacularly insane decision by the powers that be at the United Nations?

We in the AIDS movement, particularly those focused on the terrible inequities faced by those living with HIV/AIDS in Africa, are wondering how on earth we are going to face the future. Money is tight and America has become fixated with its own problems, this new "service nation" tends to be U.S.-based help, though when compared with the difficulties faced by those living in extreme poverty in the developing world, ours pale alongside theirs. Would you like to watch your children die in front of you knowing you are powerless to help? This is what parents face daily in areas struck by food shortages, AIDS and war. Would you like to walk for miles carrying a huge container of water for your family to drink? Or would you like to wake up knowing that you may have to beg for your food today? Would you like to perish in front of your children knowing that there is no family left to care for them as a consequence of AIDS? This is the norm for entire communities in African countries being decimated by this rampaging virus. Everywhere you look today you will see the statistics, so I wont bother repeating them here. Suffice to say there are millions of children who will grow up very upset at our general indifference to their worst nightmare.

I became an American citizen after 25 years of living here (I am British) in order to vote for Barack Obama. I beseech you President Obama, let's find a way to eradicate extreme poverty in the developing world. Nothing fuels disease more. Nothing fuels anti-American hatred more. For instance most people in Africa believe that if America decides to end their suffering, it will be done, especially now that a man with Kenyan genes and a funky African walk is the President.

Tragically, the face of AIDS is still resolutely female. Women's rights are of course central to making a fairer world but still, countries where disease and sexual violence against women are rife are the most unstable. It is all fixable. In the same way that we bailed out the financial institutions as an matter of emergency, we can eradicate extreme poverty -- for a fraction of the price. And thereby make terrorism and hatred toward us a thing of the past.

There are those out there who understand this and are willing to put everything they have on the line to change things. One is the amazing 42nd President of the United States, Bill Clinton. Everywhere we go in our journey across the AIDS spectrum, there he is. It seems that every meeting we take, President Clinton has already been there, asking how can I help? It seems his journey in public service has reached a peak by working diligently against the stupid injustices of most of the world, the solutions to which seem to evade the powers that be. His efforts to make lifesaving antiretroviral drugs available to as many people as possible is positively superhuman. The Clinton HIV/AIDS initiative (CHAI) is powering our movement and empowering governments to realize that they can make AIDS drugs available to their people for a fraction of the price. This has been an engine for millions of lives saved.

We at Keep A Child Alive recently met President Clinton when we honored him at our Annual fundraiser, the Black Ball. I truly thought he would come out on stage and talk about his incredible work and all it entails for his entire speech. Instead, he talked about Keep a Child Alive and our work and how if people are looking to fund HIV/AIDS care in Africa or India, they should look through the prism of our work and see if the organizations they are looking at can hold up to our standards. The Cofounder of Keep A Child Alive, Miss Alicia Keys, and I were stunned and could barely keep from weeping. We have worked so hard to bring relief to the people we serve and care for in Africa, over 250,000 of them, and it was one of those moments where we felt we could exhale for the first time in years, to hear the expert on the issue of AIDS applaud our work. What an incredible person he is and what a generous spirit. (Yes, yes he is still hot but that is not the point.)

As for Alicia herself, I can honestly say that she astounds me. She is completely focused on Keep A Child Alive, and there is never a time when she cannot be reached to work on our mission. After many years of fighting for this cause through music, I am so used to hearing the manager of an artist in whispered haloed tones tell me "he is in the studio" as if I am supposed to think that recording an album is more important than death on a mass scale. Don't get me wrong, I live for Art but Art can be salvation for the many.

Of course no one around Bono would ever do that but then his success and bank account are secure and he can do what he wants. I have known him for 20 years and adore him and I know his heart in the African battle for care is utterly and completely true. But to be 21 years old, which is how old Alicia was when we founded this organization together and to take on something as huge as the AIDS pandemic is Africa, exemplifies the courage and compassion of who Alicia is. She is the wisest soul I know. Way wiser than her years. And incredibly kind. Frankly I can't get her to say a bad word about anyone, though I do try! Because I become infuriated at the invisibility of the poor in the rest of our world or the racist undertones inherent in most messaging to the public. I shout and cry, she listens and creates the potential to talk about it in the public arena.

And then there are the corporations who say "How do we use this new found caring spirit to market our goods?" Poor Africans or any other poor are so totally invisible to the corporate world that half the time they don't even realize that what they have convinced themselves is a good thing is actually using a humanitarian tragedy as a marketing tool. Of course, some do care but most don't get it. At KCA we become devastated when the truth comes out... but we carry on with broken hearts.

I wish one day someone would call us and say "here is $10 million just because children and families anywhere are important. Help them live!" It's all very painful, especially when you have the hollowed skeletal features of another person or child dying for no good reason chiseled in your brain each day.

My life though, is blessed. Nothing is better than doing this job. As Oprah says, "Now I know what my life is for". And thank goodness I found Alicia because she is a force to be reckoned with. If she has done this much at this age, what can her future hold?

And talent? Wow! I watch seasoned performers at our annual fundraiser, "The Black Ball" (which Alicia hosts each year in New York), shocked in rehearsals at the musical genius of this young woman and how proficient she is in her musical direction. I watch rock songs like "Satellite of Love" turn into gospel hymns and greats like David Bowie marvel at her ability to translate any style of music. But mostly I see people marvel at her kindness, and her normalcy and everyone who meets her wants to kill for her.

Tonight this incredible woman will perform at the Nokia Theatre as a benefit for Keep A Child Alive (funded by a great company on this issue, American Express) which will also be streamed on You Tube. She will announce our new initiative where 5 people will win the chance to accompany her back to Africa. To enter all you have to do is text the word ALIVE to 90999. You will be donating $5 and if you are chosen, your life will be changed forever, as Alicia's was. If you don't win, you will have helped to give life to someone who is in desperate need of someone who cares.

I would also like to leave a message here for Deepak Chopra. Deepak, I am so sorry I haven't called you back yet but of all the superstars I am seasoned to talking to without any nervousness, the prospect of talking to you makes me tremble. I promise I will do it today! (We are expanding our efforts into India and he wants to be of service). Pull yourself together Leigh.

Talking of Deepak makes me think of another great Guru, Muhammad Yunus, who founded the Grameen Bank, and basically invented microlending for the poor. In his amazing book "Banker to the Poor" he tells us a few truths about the battle against poverty, asking, "How do we define poverty free?"

After interviewing many, he gives us 10 indicators:

1. Having a house with a tin roof
2. Having beds or cots for all members of the family
3. Having access to clean drinking water
4. Having access to a sanitary latrine
5. Having all school age children attend school
6. Having sufficient warm clothing for the winter
7. Having mosquito nets to prevent malaria
8. Having a home vegetable garden
9. Having no food shortages even during the most difficult time
10. Having sufficient income earning opportunities for all adult members of the family.

Bit of a reality check isn't it? But these indicators are impossible for almost half of our the world. Oh, and by the way, President Clinton has been supporting Muhammad Yunus too, from the beginning.

Please help us in our mission to keep mums, dads, aunts, uncles, children, cousins, lovers, husbands, and wives alive to experience the whole life they deserve, deliver them from poverty and give them a chance to unleash their amazing potential. This is easily done by going to www.keepachildalive.org to discover the myriad of ways to help.