DID THE JEFFREY SACHS AIDS SPEECH DESERVE APPLAUSE?

By John Spritzler
(Revised May 11, 2001)
[newdemocracyworld.org]


[Note to readers: An earlier version of this article was written based on the author's recollection of the speech. This version is based on more accurate quotations from the audio tape of the speech on the web at www.retroconference.org.]


At the February 4 AIDS conference in Chicago (the 8th Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections) Jeffrey Sachs gave a keynote speech calling for the U.S. government to spend $2 billion a year to buy HIV drugs from pharmaceutical companies and provide them free to HIV infected Africans.

Jeffrey Sachs' speech received a big applause because the audience was very happy to hear an influential economist like Sachs, who is a major player on the world scene, expressing the concern that all good people have for the plight of 37 million HIV-infected people in sub-Saharan African countries where 17 million people have already died of AIDS in the last two decades. According to a UN report, life expectancy in nine of these countries is expected to fall by 20 years due to AIDS, and most people in these countries cannot even pay the $1.50 price for a simple HIV test, never mind the thousands of dollars pharmaceutical companies charge for their treatments.

Jeffrey Sachs' Speech Covered Up The Real Cause of Poverty and AIDS in Africa

Sachs' speech was profoundly dishonest, and hurt rather than helped efforts to make HIV drugs available to the Africans who need them. Sachs devoted the first half of his speech to an explanation of Africa's problems that eliminated any mention of the fact that they are in large measure caused by the exploitation of African people and resources by corporate powers based in the developed nations. He spoke as if the poverty of Africa were just a fact of nature, with statements like: "The essence of Africa's crisis is fundamentally its extreme poverty and therefore its inability to mobilize out of its own resources even the barest of minimum resources to address any of the public health crises that Africa faces."

Large corporations own the richest resources on the African continent, for example the oil fields of Nigeria and the diamond and gold mines of South Africa. Instead of examining the actual relationship between these corporations and governmental bodies the way they influence local governments to respond to corporate rather than public health needs Sachs described international corporate leaders as people who have been unconcerned with Africa. Sachs spoke of "the utter, complete, total 100% failure of international policy to address this crisis in the poor countries of the world." He said that "The international response [to the AIDS pandemic in Africa] essentially could not have been less...a lot of hand-wringing but no real assistance" and "We essentially have done nothing." These descriptions seem calculated to cover up the role of corporations in creating the conditions of extreme poverty and social dislocation wherein AIDS has flourished. An honest speech from a world-renowned economist would have explained how the poverty and related conditions that are driving the AIDS epidemic in Africa are not the cause of Africa's problems, they are the symptoms of corporate exploitation of Africa; and any attempted solution which fails to deal with this reality cannot succeed.

From the early days of European colonialism to the present when multinational corporations dominate African economies, wealthy Westerners have been extracting the mineral and agricultural wealth from the continent not to mention labor in the form of slaves in the past and cheap labor in Africa today. To cite just one example, consider the role of Shell Oil Company in Nigeria. Shell Oil Company owns 30 percent of the state oil company and provided arms to the Nigerian military government's police forces to guard its oil installations. Most of the oil comes from the Niger delta where the Ogoni people live. Every year the delta is polluted by 2.3 billion cubic meters of oil from some 300 separate spills, almost one a day. Shell Oil is destroying the natural resources on which agriculture depends. When Ken Saro Wiwa, an Ogoni writer and environmentalist, led protests against Shell Oil's destruction of the people and the environment, the military government executed him and eight fellow Ogoni activists. In Ken Saro Wiwa's last words he condemned Shell Oil's "ecological war" and its "dirty wars against the Ogoni people" and predicted that "the crimes of that war [will] be duly punished." But according to Jeffrey Sachs, Africa's problem is that western corporations "essentially have done nothing."

Western elites have for centuries promoted weak governments in Africa which don't stand up against Western corporations and which are unresponsive to the people's needs because such governments are exactly what corporations like Shell Oil require to plunder and despoil the continent. The effect of this is poverty, malnutrition, environmental catastrophe, little or no public health measures, and the AIDS epidemic itself because people in poorer health are, as is well known, more susceptible to infectious diseases.

Even prostitution, which is often named as a main cause of the African AIDS epidemic by those who do not want to address the role of exploitation and poverty, is largely the result of multinational corporations owning the major resources of the continent. In South Africa, for example, the Anglo-American Corporation, a mining company, dominates the South African economy, and posted a 3.48 billion U.S. dollars profit for 2000.Without any other way to support their families, men are forced to leave their families and travel hundreds of miles to live in barracks and work in mines owned by an elite. The rate of serious and fatal injuries is so high that the risk of HIV infection seems small in comparison. Women, similarly desperate, survive by prostituting themselves to the men. None of this would happen if these people were really in possession of the resources of their own country, in the absence of which their government is, at best, a fake democracy. (Former South African Presidents Nelson Mandela and now Thabo Mbeki opposed apartheid, but not corporate control of South Africans, and for this reason the corporate elite have backed them. Harry Oppenheimer, a major shareholder in Anglo-American Corp., said "We owe an immense amount to Mandela. If it had not been for him, we would not have had the peaceful transition.")

As a professor of international trade, Sachs certainly knows that companies like Shell Oil and Anglo-American Corp. are draining Africa of its wealth. Yet Sachs told his audience that the "essence of Africa's crisis is fundamentally its extreme poverty." This is simply a cover-up, and as intellectually bankrupt as a physician diagnosing a patient's illness as due to "extreme illness."

Sachs' speech shielded the very people who are responsible for the problems of poor Africans by describing their crimes of commission as simply acts of omission. Sachs defended the pharmaceutical company owners by telling the audience that "They are, and I think not rightly, becoming public enemy number one" and by describing the pharmaceutical companies' law suit against the South African government (to prevent it from importing generic HIV drugs bought at cost from a company in India) as "misguided" and "naive" rather than denouncing it as an example of the exploitative social relations that are the cause of the poverty and AIDS in Africa. At a more recent conference in Norway on AIDS drugs for Africans, Sachs shocked AIDS activists by launching into a blistering attack on the generics industry, and requested that the activists stop their campaign to license cheaper generic drugs and instead "respect" patents on medicines even in countries where patents do not exist. One leading activist, James Love, told a Boston Globe Magazine (June 3, 2001) reporter, "The more he [Sachs] hangs out with the Merck guys, the more he's focused on helping Merck. It's bizarre. It's simply not in the poor's interest to have the highest levels of intellectual property rights protection. He should be horsewhipped for saying that."

Identifying With The Exploiters

Another part of Sachs' speech was devoted to convincing the audience to identify with the wealthy corporate elite, including the pharmaceutical companies, and to look at the world from that point of view, in particular to view ordinary Africans angered by unequal access to AIDS drugs as a threat. Sachs used phrases like "We" and "Americans" as if ordinary Americans benefited from or had any say in policies carried out by elite corporate and government leaders. He spoke, for example, of "a decade in which Americans enjoyed $9 trillion of capital gains and we've only lost 1 of those in the last 9 months so we're still up $8 trillion ladies and gentlemen..."

Sachs graphically described how to view the world if you are somebody enjoying "$9 trillion of capital gains," telling the audience: "It's one thing to have a world where the rich countries are $35,000 per year and the 600 million in the poorest of the poor countries are below $350 per year and many $250 per year, and it's quite another to have a circumstance where millions of people are dying before our eyes from conditions that could be treatable with new products and pharmaceuticals that could save their lives, and they know it. It's a very dangerous situation that we're in from all aspects ethical, public health, economic and political... We have recognition among our national intelligence council, Central Intelligence Agency, other intelligence estimates in the past year, the UN Security Council and other fora, a recognition that this pandemic fundamentally threatens U.S. interests...The pharmaceutical companies themselves I think are beginning to understand the risks... They are the target of a growing amount of activism..." [All italics are mine, since the quotes are from an audio tape.] By citing the CIA and framing the suffering of Africans as a threat to "our" economic and political interests, Sachs asked the audience to side with the wealthy and powerful in the world and to consider the merits of giving poor Africans a little today to prevent their taking much more of what they rightfully should have tomorrow.

The Sachs Speech Was About Public Relations, Not Public Health

Sachs' proposal for $2 billion per year for AIDS drugs for Africa doesn't really match the magnitude of the problem and he knows it. He admitted himself that this sum of money is "for a macro-economist, mere rounding error." His proposal did not include the most effective protease inhibitor class of drugs, and it did not include any realistic measures for developing the clinical infrastructures required to actually deliver the treatments to those who need them.

Sachs' proposal wasn't really about public health; it was about public relations for the world's corporate elite and, in particular, damage control for the pharmaceutical giants. It was meant to persuade the audience of three thousand scientists motivated by humanitarian goals to think of those who are really responsible for the unequal access to HIV drugs the pharmaceutical companies and the class of corporate and political leaders they rely on to operate as the good guys, and to think about the lack of HIV drugs for Africans the way the CIA thinks about it, as a problem because of the social upheavals that may result from people's anger.

What Will Really Help Africans In Both the Short and Long Term?

What HIV-infected Africans need most of all is precisely what political and corporate leaders and their spokesmen like Jeffrey Sachs most fear revolutions to make this a more democratic and equal world where neither capitalist nor communist nor socialist elites hold power. Only then will the thousands of medical researchers and clinicians and public health workers who want to develop treatments and vaccines and hopefully one day a cure for AIDS be provided the resources to accomplish this and to make these things available to all, and only then will they be freed of the profit-driven and social-control driven interference of wealthy elites who only care about making money off of these humanitarian efforts and protecting their power in a very unequal and undemocratic world. Even in the short term, the pressure on political and corporate leaders to provide AIDS drugs to Africa will be greater if Jeffrey Sachs fails in his efforts to divert criticism away from them, because their fear of being perceived as part of the problem instead of the solution is the only reason they have for providing the drugs in the first place.

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More on this topic:

Who Is Jeffrey Sachs?        HIV Drugs and Social Control


Published first on the web by newdemocracyworld.org.

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