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AIDS and war - the bottom line (May 2003)

"You need three things to win a war; money, money and more money"
Trivulzio (1441-1518)

As we write, jubilant mobs are filling the streets of Baghdad, though warnings of increasing lawlessness darken the future.

There's been enough journalistic hot air expended on the Iraq war. We won't go on about its human cost here. Suffering is suffering and you can't weigh in the balance who deserves more aid or compassion, a boy in Baghdad with his limbs blown off, or one in Burundi dying for lack of antiretrovirals.

But let's get hard-nosed. Let's talk about the bottom line, about the cost of war in terms of hard cash. And let's contrast it with the money that has not been spent to finance a war against Aids.

It's estimated that the Iraq war will cost at least $1.2 trillion. $1,200,000,000,000.

So calculates Yale economist William Nordhaus when everything is taken into account and if there's prolonged US occupation and reconstruction in Iraq.

To put this jaw-droppingly huge amount of money in context, the world Gross Domestic Product - the money the entire human race generates in a year - is nudging $40 trillion, of which the US share is $10 trillion.

OK, war makes money as well as wastes it - the price of oil is now plummeting as predicted, with all that implies for a boost to the global economy. But it'll have to drop a hell of a lot even to compensate for the $200 billion the war has cost so far. (The first night's bombing of Baghdad cost $24 million alone.)

Compared with this, the cost of a War Against Aids is tiny. By 2007, UNAIDS calculates that to provide adequate treatment, care and prevention against HIV and Aids the world over would cost $15 billion.

So that's $200 billion to kill - so far - an estimated 5,200 people. Versus $15 billion to save the lives of 40 million people. Yet the former is what the US has chosen to do.

There's more. A War Against Aids would make a profit. Back in 1995, the Los Angeles Times calculated that by 2000 Aids would have cost the global economy $514 billion. For every one per cent increase in HIV prevalence in a country, the World Bank reckons that a country's economy shrinks by one per cent. That yields a minimum cost of $23 billion a year, disproportionately affecting the poorest countries.

We could throw every bit of money at the Global Fund that Kofi Annan says it needs, and still end up with a fat surplus.

But hasn't President Bush finally heard this message? He has just promised a total of $8.5 billion 'new money' for HIV over the next five years (not $15 billion as reported elsewhere). Yes. But it has strings. All but $1 billion of it is going to 14 countries, 13 of which are in Africa, and it will be spent on US-approved treatment and care projects. No money for the newest HIV hotspots in Russia and India, and none for prevention.

Only $1 billion will go to the Global Fund, that UN-run (boo!) bunch of do-gooders that actually allow countries to decide (shock horror) how they want to spend money on HIV. That's if the Fund ever sees it. The bulk of Bush's money isn't due till 2005-7 - by which time he could be an ex-president. Or be trying to find $1.2 trillion. He's giving the Fund $200 million next year - a 40 per cent cut from 2002-3.

Aids campaigners are now so concerned that the Global Fund will be starved of income, they've launched a 'Fund the Fund' campaign. Positive Nation will cover the issue in depth next month.

It is probably morally right to overthrow a dictator as brutal as Saddam. But it's as morally wrong not to overthrow a killer as cruel as Aids. And stupid not to create the prosperity that could result from doing so.

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