The Non-war against AIDS.
Three years after the United Nations declared a worldwide offensive against AIDS and 14 months after President Bush promised $15 billion for AIDS treatment in poor countries, shortages of money and battles over patents have kept antiretroviral drugs from reaching more than 90 percent of the poor people who need them.
— Donald G. McNeil Jr, "Plan to Battle AIDS Worldwide Is Falling Short," New York Times, March 28.
I suppose we all, at one time or another, have said we were going to do something that we didn’t do. We may even, shamefully, have forgotten that we said we were going to do it. I am not letting myself, or you, off the hook in this matter. It’s a very bad deal to let other people down, to minimize their self-respect by failing to live up to the expectations that we created when we made the commitment. Alibis for lack of effort are not the moral equivalent of success.
Yet, because of our weakness, ignorance, and self-inflated notions of what we can do, it’s not surprising that we as individuals fail to do as we say. After a record of disappointing others, we may develop the habit of non-commitment, as in the classic parental declaration, "We’ll see."
The United Nations and the United States may be self-inflated, but they cannot plead weakness or ignorance. They have no worthy alibi for failing to live up to their commitment against AIDS. They have the resources to do as they said; they can perform what they have promised – which wasn’t victory, but a good fight. So far they have barely waged a token resistance.
Shortage of money? No. Only the unwillingness to divert money to a cause we have publicly declared to be of first importance. Battles over patents? That’s like fussing over insurance forms in emergency room when there are thousands of casualties waiting for treatment.
Ethical commitment means the willingness to prioritize resources and personnel. Since the President made this promise on our behalf even as the nation was frantically preparing for an unfunded hot war, we expected him to know how he was going to fulfill it. If he didn’t know where the money was coming from, or that he could command the cooperation of the pharmaceutical industry, he should have kept his mouth shut. It is shameful to make promises to the wretched of the world if we are not going to make an earnest effort at keeping them.
In trivial matters like U.S. political campaigns, where both speakers and listeners concentrate more on how words sound than on what they mean, promises don’t mean much. We even have a name for them. "Campaign promises" are not real promises. (That we long ago came to this understanding is a sign of our moral deterioration.)
But the fifteen billion dollars promised to AIDS sufferers in poor nations was to them a real promise from the richest nation in the world. It was in The State of the Union address at the beginning of 2003. To make a promise like that, and then treat it like a campaign promise, is to practice the politics of shame.