The Episcopal Church's advocates on global issues celebrated a double legislative victory this week as the U.S. Congress passed legislation to authorize a $15 billion program to combat global AIDS and to direct the Bush Administration to negotiate deeper debt relief for the world's poorest countries.
On May 16, the United States Senate unanimously passed the global AIDS bill, H.R. 1298, "The United States Leadership Against HIV/AIDS Act of 2003." The legislation tracks closely a plan outlined by President Bush in his State of the Union speech to address the AIDS crisis in Africa and the Caribbean.
The new AIDS initiative authorizes U.S. spending up to $3 billion in 2004 for AIDS prevention efforts, medical treatment, palliative care and support for child-orphans of AIDS victims abroad. The proposal would increase U.S. spending on global AIDS by up to $10 billion over 5 years. The bill's authors, International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-IL) and the committee's ranking member, Tom Lantos (D-CA), call for $3 billion for the first year of the five-year plan, an amount that exceeds the President's budget request of $1.7 billion. Supporters intend to fight for the full $3 billion when Congress takes up the 2004 spending bills later this year.
Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold said of the crisis, "The pandemic continues to be one of the most serious health concerns in the world, with many countries facing economic decline because of the devastation of the disease among working age people. Congressional passage of a comprehensive U.S. Global AIDS Initiative demonstrates our capacity to respond to the desperate needs of the millions of people worldwide affected by HIV/AIDS. I urge Congress to continue to make the global AIDS issue a high priority. It will require a sustained global response to this disease if we are to tackle the pandemic."
Episcopal Church leadership on these issues helped fashion bipartisan support for both ambitious initiatives, and played a key role in their passage. The church's advocacy, through the Office of Government Relations in Washington, focused on educating policy makers about the plight of the 70-million member Anglican Communion, with nearly half of its members residing in Africa, where 70% of AIDS-infected persons live. Partners in Haiti are also confronting a high rate of HIV/AIDS infection in that country.
More than a health crisis
In September 2002, U.S. Episcopal bishops reaffirmed their concern for those who suffer from HIV/AIDS, pledging "to do all in their power to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and to offer prayer and the compassionate ministry of Christ to all affected by HIV/AIDS." Anglican partners in Africa and the Caribbean have been gravely impacted by the AIDS pandemic, which is more than a health crisis: it has decimated the workforce, led to a collapse in educational systems, deepened poverty, undermined agriculture production and created millions of orphans and vulnerable children.
The Council of Anglican Provinces in Africa (CAPA) has responded by launching its own AIDS awareness and prevention program based on a six-point call to responsibility: leadership, care, prevention, counseling, pastoral care, and death and dying. CAPA's board has formally committed to a program designed to teach children and their parents life-preserving skills to inhibit the virus that causes AIDS, including the provision of information on abstinence before marriage, fidelity and faithfulness within marriage, delaying sexual activity, and the correct use of condoms.
AIDS advocates scored an important modification to the House-passed version of the bill concerning U.S. contributions to The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria. The change will authorize the U.S. to contribute up to 33 percent of total contributions from all sources, up to $1 billion. This could permit a significant increase in the U.S. contribution to the Fund. The 2003 contribution was $350 million.
The Episcopal Church is urging Congress to fully support the Global Fund, and calls on the President to aggressively petition other G-8 donors to match the U.S. contribution. The president will travel to Evian, France, in June for the next gathering of the G-8 creditor nations.
Debt relief for poor countries
A prior procedural agreement between the White House and Senate caused every amendment to the AIDS bill to be voted down, except for one: an amendment crafted by the church's Office of Government Relations to provide deeper debt relief for qualified poor countries, especially those burdened by high levels of HIV/AIDS. That amendment directs the president to negotiate with other creditor nations to cap poor countries' debt payments at 10% of revenues or at 5 percent in the case of countries suffering health crises.
Senators Rick Santorum (R-PA) and Joseph Biden (D-DE), the primary sponsors, championed the debt relief amendment despite the difficult procedural and political hurdles in play. "We applaud Senators Santorum and Biden, and their colleague, Senator [Lincoln] Chafee [R-RI], for their unwavering commitment to eradicating the debts of the heavily indebted poor countries," said the church's international policy analyst, Jere Skipper. "Debt cancellation is an essential component of poverty reduction and the fight against global AIDS. Debt cancellation is a proven mechanism for freeing resources for education and health care needs." Skipper noted that almost every country that qualified to have some of its debt payments cancelled has directed the savings for HIV/AIDS prevention and care and for education.
The Episcopal Church made debt relief a priority following the 1998 Lambeth Conference, a gathering of the bishops of the Anglican Communion. In 1999, the Office of Government Relations co-drafted legislation that resulted in the creation of the original Enhanced Heavily-Indebted Poor Country Initiative (HIPC). The HIPC initiative resulted in the cancellation of $1 billion in poor country debt service payments since 2000.
This second round of debt cancellation, if adopted by the G-8 creditor nations, will facilitate the cancellation of another $1 billion in HIPC debt service payments. To date, the total amount of poor country debt written off under the heavily-indebted poor country initiative equals $36 billion. The President has indicated that he will sign the bill into law next week.