Monday, December 17, 2007

Fighting Aids with African Common Sense

My article reviewing Helen Epstein's book has been posted on the Acton site. It is also up on my own website.
The occasion for my writing about this book was the UN admission that they had been inflating the numbers of new HIV infections for years. This chart gives an idea of how great the overstatement has been:

U.N. scientists have overestimated the size of the epidemic:

33 million: Revised estimate for HIV cases worldwide

40 million: Previous worldwide estimate

2.5 million: Number of annual new HIV infections

40 percent: The drop from last year's HIV infection estimate

SOURCE: United Nations documents

Helen Epstein was one of the experts cited:
Some researchers, however, contend that persistent overestimates in the widely quoted U.N. reports have long skewed funding decisions and obscured potential lessons about how to slow the spread of HIV. Critics have also said that U.N. officials overstated the extent of the epidemic to help gather political and financial support for combating AIDS.

“There was a tendency toward alarmism, and that fit perhaps a certain fundraising agenda,” said Helen Epstein, author of The Invisible Cure: Africa, the West, and the Fight Against AIDS.” "I hope these new numbers will help refocus the response in a more pragmatic way,” Epstein said.

Here are the opening paragraphs of my review of her book. I absolutely recommend this book to anyone interested in sexual politics.
Amid reports that the United Nations has been grossly overestimating the scope of the global AIDS pandemic, a new book points to what may be an even greater miscalculation: AIDS relief efforts have failed to understand the crucial role of family and community networks in controlling the disease.

International aid agencies assumed that reducing the spread of AIDS was primarily a matter of hygiene and health care. UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, estimates that total spending on AIDS programs will increase 12 percent this year to $10 billion. Yet, relief organizations have overlooked actual social behavior and sexual practices.

This is the message of Helen Epstein’s important new book, The Invisible Cure: Africa, the West and the Fight Against Aids. Her book is one long testimony to the necessity of at least some social structures operating on a human scale. Although Epstein doesn’t cite the principle of subsidiarity from Catholic social teaching, or the corresponding principle of sphere sovereignty from the Dutch Reformed tradition, the importance of intensely local communities as “first responders” is clearly highlighted. Her book shows that the few noteworthy successes in slowing the spread of AIDS and comforting the sick have not come from sophisticated international organizations, but from local communities.

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