Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Democracy and AIDS
One of the biggest news items of the day is that the South African cabinet has, at last, agreed to roll out anti-retroviral drugs. I'm not sure how this gels with Manto Tshabalala-Msimang's comments that we should talk about HIV and AIDS, rather than HIV-AIDS (given that, on my understanding, anti-retrovirals impede the development of HIV into AIDS, thereby acknowledging the link) but most on planet earth are likely to agree that the cabinet plan is a positive development.

The question, of course, is why the government has decided to do this now. The BBC report cites the lower cost of anti-retrovirals as possible factor but I tend to think that the election next year is the chief motivation. After all, COSATU have been grumbling about the government's AIDS plan for some time now and, I'm told, even newspapers such as the Sowetan were becoming critical. I tend to think that the government realised that it was vulnerable on this issue, and needed to shore up its public support.

The next question, of course, is whether this should worry us. If its just an election ploy, isn't the motivation wrong? I think not; in fact, I think we should take it as a sign that democracy is working. In his seminal book Development as Freedom Amartya Sen makes the point that democracies typically don't suffer from famines whereas dictatorships do. Why? Because in a democracy, information reaches the centre (due to freedom of speech and the press) and the government has a strong incentive to deal with the problem (lest they be voted out of office). The fact that the ANC has adopted this policy, despite their long resistance to acknowledging the AIDS crisis, suggests -- I think -- that the message was getting through, and the government realised it was jeopardising its support. In short, its a sign of a functioning democracy.

At least, that's the most positive interpretation. If the program is slashed after the election then I will have to revise my views. (This last point isn't as outlandish as it might sound. While in Ghana I noticed lots of half-finished buildings. When I asked about them I was told that the government habitually builds before an election and stops immediately thereafter -- even in mid-project.) I'm also not cheered by a report that the ANC is likely to win a two-thirds majority despite dragging their heels on this issue -- it suggests that the electorate isn't as critical, and therefore the government doesn't have to be as responsive, as my intepretation suggests. But, still, let's be optimistic.

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