What’s behind this positive turn? The standard narrative attributes these recent improvements to Western engagement. The heroes are the best-known acronyms in the world of AIDS (PEPFAR, UNAIDS, WHO), the Global Fund and a host of NGOs. Together, these organizations have waged total war against AIDS in Africa—or what looks like total war if you compare it to efforts devoted to other diseases. They have spent tens of billions of dollars. They have mobilized legions of scientists, medical professionals, development workers, educators, TV programmers, marketing specialists and volunteers. And they have shunned, silenced and demonized those who oppose their good work. The good news about AIDS in Africa—so this standard narrative goes—is the result of their efforts. It’s proof that even on that dark and desperate continent, awash with ancient superstitions, hypersexuality, dangerous traditional practices and poor leadership, AIDS cannot withstand a sustained pummeling by well-intentioned and well-financed outsiders.
This narrative contains some important elements of truth: Pharmacological treatments in particular are transforming HIV from a death sentence into a manageable, chronic condition, at least for those with access to antiretrovirals. But most of the measured improvements in AIDS in Africa are actually the result of cumulative, widespread behavior change that has led to a reduction in new HIV infections. In other words, the standard narrative is wrong. The narrative is wrong because it ignores local African responses to AIDS and characterizes religion and religious leaders as part of the problem. We have systematically studied the role of religious leaders in sub-Saharan Africa for about a decade. As a single class of people, local religious leaders sit at the very top of our list of who should receive credit for the behavior changes that have curbed the spread of HIV in Africa.
This statement may surprise or even irritate people imagining fire-and-brimstone preachers who condemn the use of condoms, push conservative messages about sex and morality and interpret AIDS as God’s wrath. That’s not what African religious leaders have been doing—quite the contrary.
Approximately 90 percent of Africans participate regularly in some religious congregation, and religious leaders have been preaching about sexual morality, in particular about abstinence and fidelity. But Africa’s religious leaders began doing this before PEPFAR and Western public health authorities told them to—long before the attention of the development world turned to AIDS in Africa. What prompted their efforts? Certainly not the fact that they were, or are, getting paid to do this by foreign NGOs. Ninety percent of congregation leaders in Malawi, where we began working on AIDS in 2004, have never seen a penny from any international NGO or their programs. Rather, they started preaching and teaching and facilitating conversations about AIDS when they became overwhelmed with caregiving and burial responsibilities, and when their members—especially the women—began demanding that they do so. On the world’s most religious continent, people use religious ideas, language and organizations to address problems, big and small. This is the source of religion’s positive contribution to the recent improvements in Africa’s AIDS situation. Full story can be found here.
"In Malawi, where we have supported a rural faith-centered hospital for more than a decade that serves more than 600 villages and a population exceeding a quarter million people, the abstinence and faithfulness messages that permeate the entire region have had an incredible affect. About 50 miles from the capital of Lilongwe where the HIV infection rate hovers around 15 percent, the catchment area of the hospital now sees a rate falling below 3 percent. In a church service we attended in 2002 in Kampala, Uganda, I can vividly recall a rather dramatic skit played out concerning an unfaithful husband and how he brought AIDS home to his faithful spouse and how it tore the family apart. A very compelling message for the church.
"Regarding the Western experts and their love of condoms, I believe history will show us that the African skepticism of them was well founded. As Ambassador Dr. Mark Dybul testified before Congress, 'the more condoms we sent to Botswana the more we saw their HIV infection rates rise.' As contended by the authors, the role of condoms has been overstated…and the church’s role understated."
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CMDA Washington Office Advocacy in AIDS/HIV