African Union AIDS Summit is a ‘Talk Shop’


Conferences of this kind, with grandly-worded commitments, usually accomplish little.

They have gathered once more for a talk shop
They gathered once more for a talk shop

By Azad Essa (Al Jazeera),

Dubbed a “special summit” on HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the summit has brought together African leaders in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, to discuss progress in alleviating the threats posed by the three diseases.

And yet a trip to #Abuja+12 to discuss “progress” could be considered superfluous. A simple stroll down to a local clinic in Yibe, Addis Ababa or Khayelitsha in Cape Town or Kibera in Nairobi would give a true account of actual progress made in combating these diseases on the continent.

For anyone ever affected by TB, malaria or HIV/AIDS, directly or indirectly, which is a majority of Africans, these summits and their grandly worded commitments usually mean little. 

On the opening day of the summit on Monday, the AU leadership lauded Abuja for “holding an important place in the fight against the diseases on the continent”, as the Nigerian capital plays host to its third such summit (2001, 2006 and now 2013).

According to the Abuja resolutions of 2001, AU member states committed to transferring 15 percent of their public funding to health. Twelve years later, and just six out of 54 member states have managed to achieve this.

During the same period, ambitious member states managed to develop a “plan” to strengthen their health system.

It is a flexibility that is, however, a characteristic of African politics.

In 2001, member states resolved to halve malaria mortalities by 50 percent by 2010 and when this didn’t seem possible, they extended the deadline to 2015. As of now, malaria-related deaths have decreased by just 25 percent and Africa remains the only region on earth that will not achieve the global target of reducing TB mortality by 50 per cent under the same deadline.

Commitments, as they turn out, are a lot more difficult in practice than they are in principle.

But while statistics are stark and revealing, though yet ill considered and often demeaning, it is in the failure to develop sustainable practices of data collection that illustrates a jarring lack of political will to address the health crisis.

Where, then, is the funding being funnelled if countries aren’t even able to provide data on progress?

Dismal Statistics

In fact, despite the notion of an ‘Africa Rising‘, the continent still has just two per cent of the world’s physicians and accounts for just 1 per cent of health spending.

All the while playing host to “24 per cent of the global disease burden“.

Of course, it is not all doom and gloom.

There has been remarkable progress in countries that are not plagued by conflict.

More people on the continent (some 7 million people) are on AIDS treatment than ever before; more mosquito nets protect children in malaria-infested countries like Angola, Swaziland or Tanzania. In 2011, one third of children were under nets, whereas in 2000, just five percent had access to protection.

Crucially, with the reported success in halting mother-to-child transmissions of HIV (a reduction of 50 per cent in seven Sub Saharan countries) Africans can focus on the present rather than stress over the next generation being born with the HIV virus.

In those countries witnessing improvements – like Zambia, Ethiopia or South Africa – prioritisation of health and education is driving these changes.

Zambia’s dedicated ARV programme for pregnant women has worked miracles while South Africa’s long walk away from ambiguous and inactive policy has been described as “one of the most momentous public health achievements in history”.

For the past three decades, the misdiagnosis, expensive medication, societal abandonment and conspiracy theories of HIV/AIDS slapped too many into a collective dystopia; a perceived helplessness.

But today, there is a palpable change.

The resurgent interest in the continent has injected an optimistic realism to segments of African leadership who recognise that only a healthy population can take advantage of Africa’s potential.

Not only do Africans feel more empowered to tackle their own problems, advancements in generic medical technology offers far more accessible, cheaper solutions.

Africa’s opportunity to negotiate loans and developmental aid has also changed as new powers look to wield influence on the continent; realisations abound that a healthy continent will not exist in a vacuum.

Crucially, a new, connected, youthful generation will demand that these issues are taken seriously.

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Al Jazeera’s Azad Essa is currently reporting on HIV/AIDS, TB and Malaria in Zambia as part of a Global Health fellowship with the International Reporting Project. He will be focusing on the recent gains by Zambia in trying to alleviate the impact of three of the most devastating diseases to hit Sub Saharan Africa.

Follow him on twitter@azadessa
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