UN Explores Which is Harder: Fighting AIDS & Poverty or Getting Rich Country Promises Met

The United Nations Millennium Development Goals Summit has concluding here in New York and it seems clear that there is good news and bad news. The good news is that people from around the world have gathered to continue to fight poverty, food insecurity, and poor health. The bad news is that it seems next to impossible to keep wealthy-country leaders to the promises they and their nations have made.

But there are two faint lights on the horizons--reasons, perhaps, for hope.

The first is the potential that the White House will make a bold, 3-year commitment to double our annual contribution to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria, which would have huge ripple effects. It could, for example, mean the capacity to literally end the birth of babies born HIV-positive.

The second is that leaders might actually embrace the rarest of things in economic policy: a proposal for a genuine game-changer that would benefit communities reeling from the economic crisis in the United States and in the world's poorest countries. The proposal is for a tiny tax on overheated, glutted financial sectors--which would have the dual benefit of curtailing the irresponsible behavior that contributes to economic instability, while raising billions of dollars in new resources to invest in key domestic and global priorities, such as fighting disease, climate change mitigation, and protecting our children from poverty.

So where does our President Obama who won the Nobel prize and pledged a new era of multilateralism and global progress fit into this picture?

The Global Fund

When President Barack Obama was running for his office he pledged $50 billion over 5 years to the fight against global AIDS and an increase of at least $1 billion per year to the U.S.-bilateral PEPFAR program. But instead the White House has requested essentially flat funding and a $50 million decrease this year to the U.S. contribution to the Global Fund.

AIDS activists have been heartbroken watching as momentum in the fight against AIDS begins to falter. The disconnect between science and policy is drastic: reaching all those in need of antiretroviral treatment could drastically slash infection rates and save millions of lives. One study shows as much as 92% reduction when the HIV+ member of a couple is on AIDS treatment! The newest models show that if we invest now we can halt the pandemic in its tracks--we can end HIV for the next generation. Or we can flat-line and the devastation returns.

I am told by people within the Obama administration that they are thinking about making the first ever multi-year pledge to the Global Fund from the U.S. My question is whether this will turn out to be a cynical "as little as we can get away with" moment or a transformation in U.S. policy. A small increase would be a catastrophe because pandemics don't wait around for small progress but need serious commitment and leadership--which will pay off. But if the U.S. pledged more like $5-$6 billion over the coming three years it could transform the debate. It would pressure other donors to do more and the Global Fund could have what it needs to craft a bold, winning strategy.

The Bush administration year after year undercut the Global Fund--they saw it as a multilateral institution they could not control that was more focused on results than on ideology. Will this be an Obama mark of change and progress?

A Financial Speculation Tax

This week the French and Spanish presidents both came out strongly for a tiny tax on financial speculation that could raise hundreds of billions of dollars each year. Congressman Pete Stark has put forward a bill in the U.S. congress to do just that--a 0.005% tax on currency speculation by the big banks.

The currency markets have reached $4 trillion per day. Yes, that's trillion with a "T," worth of just trading money back and forth between currencies in a gamble to try to make fast cash off changing exchange rates. We're not talking about you or I traveling and needing to change cash or migrant families sending home needed money--for that we already pay huge percentages to the banks. But the speculators--those with millions to just move around from account to account--they do so without being taxed at even a miniscule rate.

At the U.N. this week all we heard from wealthy-country officials was what difficult budget times we were living in and how we should stop bothering them about financing. Well at least President Sarkozy is paying a bit of attention. He's noticed that the mammoth, untaxed financial sector isn't doing its part. And he's figured out that all the arguments against this idea don't hold water--it's doable, and it would raise billions each year.

We hear that Larry Summers is on his way out and there's a new chair of the Council of Economic advisors in the White House. Will this be a new dawn for this idea? Will the White House actually make the bankers pay their fare share globally?

So, rays of hope. Am I deluding myself? Is Washington too stuck in partisan bickering to notice that around the world communities are in crisis and people with AIDS are being turned away from clinics because they don't have the money to offer drugs to new patients? Let's hope maybe not.

I hope against hope that Barack Obama will not be the U.S. president who decided not to defeat the AIDS pandemic--instead I continue to believe that he could be the President who puts us on track to an AIDS free word.