Funding cuts create a ticking time bomb for HIV patients

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Today on World Aids Day, community-based organisations (CBOs) dealing with HIV and Aids are finding themselves under increasing financial pressure, putting the fight against the epidemic at huge risk of losing momentum, say campaigners.

More than 35 million people worldwide are currently living with HIV, the virus that causes Aids.

In addition, an estimated 2.1 million individuals, including 240,000 children, became newly infected with the disease in 2013.

But civil society groups working on the HIV/Aids response in some of the world’s most vulnerable communities are currently experiencing a funding crisis.

According to UNAIDS, 59 per cent of non-government organisations (NGOs) working on human rights issues such as HIV prevention and treatment saw their funding decrease in 2012.

Add to that the trend of donor countries withdrawing funding from middle-income countries (MICs) to focus on poorer countries and you have a ticking time-bomb.

“This trend of withdrawing aid by qualifying countries as MICs or to replace aid with trade is combined with shrinking access to affordable generic drugs,” said Zuzanna Muskat-Gorska, Policy Advisor at the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

“The consequence is a vicious circle of uncoordinated transition towards domestic funding with diminished ability to target countries with highest HIV burdens”.

Although HIV sufferers in MICs are most at risk from the funding cuts, they make up the biggest percentage of those living with the virus.

According to a recent policy briefing prepared by the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, 58 per cent of people who are HIV-positive live in MICs – by 2020 that figure is expected to rise to 70 per cent.

Furthermore, of the five countries with the highest HIV burdens globally, three –South Africa, Nigeria and India – are middle-income nations, whereas 15 years ago, two-thirds of all people living with HIV resided in low-income countries.

South Africa provides a particularly stark example of the impact funding cuts is having on HIV/Aids programmes.


Financial collapse

For years, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) was one of the leading lights in HIV and health activism, but recent funding cuts means that TAC needs to find 10 million rands (approximately US$900,000) to continue its work, otherwise it faces financial collapse.

TAC is currently seeking donations and has received widespread support from luminaries such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu who are supporting the #SaveTAC campaign.

“Over the last three years, one donor government after another, has been withdrawing aid from South Africa”, said Mark Heywood, a leading HIV/Aids activist and one of the co-founders of TAC.

Heywood, speaking at a debate organised by the Belgian Development Agency (BTC) in Brussels last month, told participants that the organisation’s annual budget had been cut by more than 50 per cent after a number of foreign donors pulled out.

“TAC’s budget was 2.5 million dollars per year. This year the British Department for International Development (DfID) decided to stop our funding, following the example of the Swedish, the Dutch and other governments.”

The International HIV/Aids Alliance called recently on the UK to continue its support to middle-income countries.

“South Africa is transitioning towards a stronger national health programme and is now funding 85 per cent of its national HIV response, but the sheer scale of the response needed is a huge challenge to the country’s resources, ensuring that donor support is still important,” it said in a policy briefing.

“Governments need transitional political, technical and financial support to move towards an effective HIV response that is targeted to those groups where HIV prevalence is highest,” it continued.


More cuts to come

As announced in the recently published new Belgian policy for development cooperation, the number of Belgium’s partner countries will be reduced from 18 to 15, focusing in the future “on fragile countries and post-conflict areas where the dependence on aid is even higher. ”

Emilie Peeters, from Stop Aids Alliance, told Equal Times that if donor countries want to scale down their number of country partners, it is important to look beyond GDP.

“International development cooperation should invest where the people are most in need. This can be done through civil society organisations that can play a very specific role.

“Not only can they increase access to services, but they can also defend the human rights of people living with HIV, as well as advocating for legal and policy change,” she said.

South Africa is currently amongst the 18 countries which receive Belgium’s support, but it might not be part of the group of 15, as it has moved to the middle-income category.

Heywood explains that considering South Africa a middle-income country based on per capita income, masks inequality and ignores the 12 million people who are living below the poverty line.

“South Africa remains one of the most unequal in the world,” he told Equal Times, explaining that the drift towards the privatisation of healthcare services leaves non-privileged HIV patients with no access to medicines and doctors.

“HIV is not over, it will bounce back if we don’ t continue to act,” he insists. “We cannot address Aids if we don’t also address the health system’s collapse.”