Tuesday, 15 December 2009

ants in the sugar-bowl

In her brave, honest and funny book, The Wisdom of Whores, Elizabeth Pisani kicks a lot of asses and sacrifices quite a few sacred cows “on the untidy altar of Reality”. First-hand facts and elementary maths are there to expose myths such as that AIDS is necessarily “a development problem”. Or that “more premarital sex translates into more HIV”. The myths that cost billions of dollars. And human lives.

On UN agencies:

The six founding members of UNAIDS have now swelled to ten, and ants from elsewhere in the UN system are making their way to sugar-bowl, too. The Standing Committee on Nutrition has its HIV programme. So do peacekeepers. And fisheries. Why fisheries?
Chatting with my friend Bert who works for the World Bank, I marvelled that almost every UN agency was on the AIDS bandwagon. Bert gave me a weary look. ‘The UN institutions are professional beggars, and beggars go where money is’, he said. ‘So you get “culture and AIDS”, “kids and AIDS”, “fish and AIDS”. I’m just waiting for “climate change and AIDS”.’
On American funding of HIV programmes:
The biggest funder of all, the United States, decides in Washington how its money will be spent. It actively discourages investing in ways that will maximize lives saved in most of the world.
On articles of faith:
The demonization of condoms, now fairly common in Muslim countries, seems to be a relatively recent contaminant from Catholic doctrine.
On scientific honesty:
A few years ago, the British Medical Journal floated the idea of including an ‘honesty box’ in each of its articles — a space for researchers to record the ‘warts’ in their data, the little things that go wrong in the field. Because let’s face it, things go wrong even when you’re going door to door asking people what they ate for breakfast. In HIV research you’re going from brothel to gay bar asking about behaviours that are often illegal or embarrassing and collecting specimens to test for an unspeakable fatal disease in countries with erratic vigilante movements and an irregular power supply. The honesty box can fill up quite quickly.
On AIDS conferences:
Once upon a time, these conferences were about science. Nowadays they are about institutional posturing, theatrical activism and money. Lots of money. The Bangkok conference cost US $18.5 million. Nearly 19,000 people rocked up to it, scrummaging for the goodie back-packs given out by pharmaceutical companies. Big pharma paid handsomely to nab the best real estate, the exhibition booths in the center of the main hall. They paid again to get their booths dressed to impress, with cappucino bars, and indoor waterfall and larger-than-life photos of gleaming Western labs and grateful African children.

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