Money and Lives (Senate hearing on AIDS)

On Tuesday (May 18), Bono participated in the Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on AIDS in Washington, D.C. U2 fan and Jubilee USA activist Abbey Fisher attended the hearing. Abbey shares her story and perspective on the AIDS emergency with U2log.

I volunteer for Jubilee USA Network, a continuation of the Jubilee 2000 movement, part of a worldwide campaign to cancel debts of countries in the Global South (Third World or developing countries). Debts of these countries are far from being completely canceled. Debt is a large stumbling block for countries fighting AIDS epidemics, poverty, lack of education, unsafe water, unfair trade relationships, and so many other social and economic problems. Through my involvement with Jubilee, I have learned much about the global AIDS pandemic. All of these issues are interrelated, and I believe they should be addressed as such.

On 9 a.m. Tuesday morning, two friends and I entered the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. After going through security, we made our way to Room 124, where we would hear testimony from U.S. Global AIDS Program Coordinator Randall Tobias, Bono, and AIDS activist Agnes Nyamayarwo. As we walked down the hallway, we passed Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and General Peter Pace, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who were on their way to testify at other hearings in the building.

To my surprise, when we arrived at Room 124 we found only six people waiting to be let in. I guess I expected to see more people because Bono usually draws big crowds. I peeked inside and was amazed by the smallness of the room. There were only about 100 seats, in front of which was a table with three chairs and three microphones. In front of that was the counter and chairs where the senators would sit.

Everyone participating in the hearing entered from a door behind the senators’ counter. When the hearing started, Agnes Nyamayarwo and Ambassador Tobias entered relatively unnoticed. When Bono entered, however, cameras began flashing like an electrical storm (pun intended). I found it absurd that the press care more about a rock star than a U.S. government official, who has the power to change lives.

Only five members of the subcommittee were present (a full list is below): Mitch McConnell (Chairman, Kentucky), Pat Leahy (Vermont), Mike DeWine (Ohio), Dick Durbin (Illinois), and Mary Landrieu (Louisiana). Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania was conspicuously absent. After the phone message Bono left for him at the rally in Philadelphia the previous Sunday, I think he may have been afraid to attend!

HealthGAP (Global Action Project), an organization that campaigns for free global access to AIDS medications, planned a silent protest during the hearing. During Ambassador Tobias’ testimony, two women who were sitting next to me stood up behind Tobias and held up a large blue banner that read “Drug Company Puppet.” A security guard quickly grabbed the banner and escorted them from the room. Over the next several minutes, other activists stood up in pairs or individually with smaller signs with the same message. All were escorted out of the room by security, but eventually were allowed to return without the signs. Their message was that Tobias, a former pharmaceutical company CEO, and the Bush Administration, which receive a large amount of “campaign donations” from pharmaceutical companies, have shown a strong preference for using brand name HIV/AIDS medications instead of much less expensive and equally effective generic medications. With generics, funding for treatment goes about three times as far as with brand names. There has also been a lot of support for single-dose combination treatments, in which three drugs are combined either in a single pill, or three separate pills packaged in one container, making it easier for patients to take. The Bush Administration only began to support this form of treatment after the pharmaceutical companies agreed to start testing them.

Before the hearing began, my friends and I considered participating in the protest, but decided not to so we could hear all the testimony. Bono, who was warned about the protest in advance of the hearing, did not react to it at all.

Tobias read a prepared statement (interestingly, not made available to the press in advance like Bono’s was), stating that the Bush Administration’s Global AIDS Plan has been a success, with the first wave of funding (a mere $350 million, which has actually been spent) used to treat about 50,000 people living with HIV/AIDS with anti-retroviral medications (ARVs), and helping 60,000 children orphaned by the disease. He stated that the $15 billion in the original plan, spread out over 5 years in 14 (soon to be 15) countries in Africa and the Caribbean, would be used to provide 2 million people with ARVs, prevent 7 million new infections, and care for 10 million infected and affected people, including orphans.

The Fiscal Year 2004 budget only provided $2.4 billion in funding, short of the maximum $3 billion allowed per year. Of that $2.4 billion, only $547 million went to the Global Fund, the multilateral (multi-country) fund that gives donations to groups within developing countries that are on the front lines of the pandemic. The rest of the money is used bilaterally, directly from the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator’s office to groups that are working to fight AIDS. Money from the Global Fund comes from many donors, so in many people’s opinions (mine included), it is distributed to groups who will use it most efficiently and do not serve any one country’s agenda. In FY 2005, the Bush Administration only wants to contribute $200 million to the Global Fund!

The Bush Administration has been criticized for giving a lot of the money to American faith-based groups who have missions in developing countries. Because of their religious beliefs, these groups discourage the use of condoms with the justification that condoms are not solely effective in preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. I do not disagree (prevention education is needed), but I am aware that part of the money that comes directly from the United States (tax dollars!) has gone to churches in the United States that not only don’t provide condoms, but also don’t even provide medical treatment to those living with HIV/AIDS. One church with missions in Africa is given funding to minister (i.e., preach the Christian gospel) and provide food and hygenic care for patients and orphans, but it does not distribute ARVs or condoms. To my knowledge, only abstinence is discussed as a means of preventing the spread of AIDS.

During the hearing, the subcommittee queried Tobias about the approval process for generic drugs. Effective generic drugs are already being produced in countries like India and Brazil, but they haven’t been distributed in Africa through President Bush’s initiative. The World Health Organization says that these drugs are safe to use anywhere in the world, but the Bush Administration has said the WHO is not a regulatory organization and that only drugs that pass U.S. Food and Drug Administration testing would be distributed from U.S.-sponsored programs. Approval of these drugs could take two to six weeks, which isn’t terribly long, but the Administration’s argument, in my opinion, is ludicrous. The United States is claiming that an international health organization basically doesn’t know what it’s talking about, and that the United States needs to approve these drugs AND that they need to comply with drug patent laws, which favor large pharmaceutical companies that own the patents on the chemical formulas of the medication. During his testimony, Bono commented on this by saying that he didn’t care whether pharmaceutical companies made a profit, but not with the lives of people in poor countries.

When asked what the Administration was planning to do after the Mother to Child Transmission (MTCT) Program expired at the end of this year, Tobias replied with the single positive statement to come out of his mouth that morning. He said they are going to start MTCT Plus, a new program that prevents mother-to-child transmission and also cares for the entire family — because when AIDS affects one person, it affects everyone in the household. I will be keeping a close (and skeptical) eye on this new initiative to see if it delivers on its promise.

The subcommittee scrutinized Tobias’ testimony and subjected him to critical comments. Senators Leahy and Durbin were particularly hard on Tobias when he said that the Bush Administration was doing as much as it could do. Leahy responded, “We’re 20 years too late and $20 billion short” on funding to fight this pandemic. Durbin added, “There is a fundamental error that the Administration isn’t helping the Global Fund. We don’t need commitment [from Tobias’ office to do more], we need money.”

Bono read a prepared statement, which is available on DATA’s web site. He pretty much read it verbatim, so I will only review the highlights.

There was a short break between Tobias’ testimony and Bono’s, because there was an important vote in the Senate. Bono and the DATA staff left the room during this time.

Before the hearing, a lot of groups expressed concern about Bono’s presence at it. Bono himself said that the subcommittee should be hearing from a doctor in the field of HIV/AIDS or someone like Agnes, who lives with HIV and is from Africa, because they are far more qualified than he to speak about the pandemic. However, the subcommittee asked Bono to testify. The concern was that they asked because he didn’t know that much, and so he might look less informed compared to Tobias, leading the committee to support Tobias’ testimony. The senators, however, were extremely and openly pro Bono (again, pun intended).

After the break, Bono began by providing an update about debt cancellation, after having been a pest in the Senate offices three years earlier campaigning on behalf of the Jubilee campaign. He said that the money used from debt cancellation was used to send millions of children to school in Uganda and to dramatically reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS in that country. As members of Jubilee, my friends and I were thrilled that he talked about debt.

Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), the chairman of the subcommittee, changed the topic briefly to discuss the situation in Myanmar (formerly Burma). McConnell had co-written an op-ed supporting Aung Sun Suu Kyi last year. He asked Bono whether he supported sanctions against the Burmese government for its suppression of political dissent. Bono replied, “Not only do I support it, I applaud it. The government runs that country like a business” and that hurting them “in the place they will feel the pain [financially] is crucial.”

Bono talked about what a great opportunity it is for the United States to become a force of good in this war on AIDS. He repeated many of the remarks he made at the rally in Philadelphia and in many interviews. He said — very correctly — that we have the resources and the power to end AIDS. We need to cut through the red tape and use our resources NOW. This is not a difficult problem; we are making it difficult because we’re afraid of messing up — afraid that some of the money may not be used as efficiently as possible. But the thousands of people who die every day can’t wait.

Senator DeWine asked Bono what works and what doesn’t work when he travels across the United States talking to people about the pandemic. Bono replied, “We need everyone talking together…What doesn’t work is when we play politics with people’s lives.”

One of the nicest parts of the hearing was witnessing the genuine camaraderie Bono has created with members of the U.S. government. Senators McConnell and Leahy — and even Tobias — referred to him as their friend. I was really heartened to hear that Bono — and everyone he represents (which is all of us who are working on this issue) — had made such a strong impression on them.

The wonderful, brave spirit that is Agnes Nyamayarwo, a nurse from Uganda who is HIV positive and who traveled with Bono during the Heart of America tour and spoke at the rally in Philadelphia last week, joined Bono at the table and told the senators the story of her life with HIV. She spoke about the deaths of her husband and youngest child, and the disappearance of her oldest son. She also shared that she had been taking generic medications but now takes brand name drugs, and that they work exactly the same.

She spoke about a meeting she had with President Bush last July, when she asked him what the United States was going to do about the people who die every day of AIDS. He promised her that he would give treatment to all the people in Africa quickly and immediately. Ten months later, most Africans are still waiting.

When Agnes visits the United States and speaks to people here, she always receives an excellent response, which gives her hope for the future. However, when she returns to work at TASO, her organization in Uganda, people ask her if she’s brought back AIDS drugs, and she has to tell them no. She asked the subcommittee to remember her and all the people and orphans of Africa, the young people who need education, and the problem of poverty.

Everyone in the room, including the senators, was openly moved by her testimony. Her voice, her story, was crucial to this hearing and to the debate on AIDS funding. The subcommittee asked her what the people of Uganda need most in fighting the AIDS pandemic. She replied that they need to fight poverty and the lack of education of young people. She said they need fair trade so African countries “will be able to stand on their own.” They need clean water so people can take their medications and mothers who are HIV-positive can mix formula to feed their babies, so they don’t have to breastfeed and risk passing the virus onto them.

When you read Bono’s statement at the hearing, you will notice a healthy dose of humor. As he did at the rally in Philadelphia last week, he made reference to the FCC woes over his “exuberant language.” Bono also made reference to the “pest” nickname he’s been given because he spends so much time lobbying in Washington. He said many people in Washington would probably like him to leave, including his band, but that AIDS is too important not to talk about, so he’ll be a pest for as long as it takes.

During the break in the hearing, right before he left the room, a gentleman called out to Bono to share his story of being HIV positive but healthy. Bono walked over to talk to the man, who thanked Bono for all the work he’s done and commented on his appearance on Oprah. Bono said, “Well, you know I’m her second cousin!” which made everyone who heard him burst out laughing.

After the hearing, Bono walked around before moving on to the press conference. He shook hands with one of my friends and talked with some other people who witnessed the hearing.

The press conference was extremely short. It was more of a photo opportunity than anything else, but Senator Leahy did express his appreciation that Bono, as a European, cared enough to come to the United States to talk about AIDS.

I was really pleased to attend my first Senate hearing and see Bono participate in it. I wish I could express the amount of pride I felt. I’m proud to be from the great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, a state that has so much power in the presidential election and whose senators (Specter and Santorum) have been supporters of AIDS funding and debt cancellation. I’m proud of the opportunities I’ve had working with Jubilee, for which I’ve been volunteering for about 3-1/2 years. I coordinated almost half of the Jubilee information tables during the Elevation tour and met so many wonderful people. Sometimes it’s difficult to see real results when you work for a goal that seems so distant, like debt cancellation or eradicating AIDS, but hearing United States senators support something in which you believe so strongly is encouraging.

I was also pleased that the hearing was dignified and a lot of U2 fans did not show up just for the opportunity to see Bono — although DATA, Jubilee, and other organizations need the energy that U2 fans bring when they support Bono. I was there because it is my life’s work, even though I don’t get paid for it. I’m proud to be a part of a big idea.

WHAT YOU CAN DO if you live in the United States

The following are members of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations:

Senator Mitch McConnell (Chairman) (KY)
Senator Arlen Specter (PA)
Senator Judd Gregg (NH)
Senator Richard Shelby (AL)
Senator Robert Bennett (UT)
Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (CO)
Senator Christopher Bond (MO)
Senator Mike DeWine (OH)
Senator Patrick Leahy (Ranking Member) (VT)
Senator Daniel Inouye (HI)
Senator Tom Harkin (IA)
Senator Barbara Mikulski (MD)
Senator Richard Durbin (IL)
Senator Tim Johnson (SD)
Senator Mary Landrieu (LA)

If they are your senator, write, call, fax, or email them and express your support for full funding of the President’s AIDS Initiative.

The Appropriations Committee is the one that “writes the checks.” They are, therefore, incredibly powerful in determining where our tax dollars go. Learn more about the Subcommittee on Foreign Operations at its web site.

The person with the most power to decide U.S. policy, however, is President Bush. You can email him, but phone calls and handwritten letters are always most effective.

President George W. Bush
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

Phone Numbers
Comment line: 202-456-1111
FAX: 202-456-2461
TTY/TDD Comment line: 202-456-6213

If you live outside the United States, write, call, or fax your government officials! Your president or prime minister, finance minister, and members of your law-making body make decisions that affect you and your country’s relationship with the rest of the world. Raise your voice and tell them how you feel!

If anyone would like to find out more about U.S. policy toward the Global AIDS pandemic, debt cancellation, or other related poverty issues, please email me. If I can’t answer your question, I can definitely point you in the right direction. For more information about DATA, visit and for more information about Jubilee USA Network, visit