Slow Distribution of Zimbabwe’s AIDS Tax Funds Frustrates Many
More than a year after Zimbabwe took the "bold step" of imposing a 3% levy on personal and corporate income to collect money for a national AIDS trust, only about $4 million has been distributed and $25 million is waiting to be spent, leaving "frustrated many people who welcomed the trust's creation," the New York Times reports. The trust, created to help care for the country's thousands of HIV-positive citizens, is needed "[m]ore than ever," as the country is experiencing "deepening economic and political turmoil," including increased unemployment and hunger. UNAIDS estimates that 25% of Zimbabwe's citizens are HIV-positive, but a new study conducted by the Ministry of Health and the CDC that has yet to be released estimates that closer to 35% of the adult population could be infected. If these figures, which are being reviewed by the ministry for accuracy, are correct, it would "increase the pressure on Zimbabwe" to distribute the AIDS trust money, the Times says.
In March, the government dissolved the National AIDS Council, a government agency that coordinates AIDS policy and dictated the distribution of the AIDS funds, after deciding that the agency "did not have the legal authority to manage the trust." Some accused the government of "playing politics," saying that the agency's board was disbanded because the chair was a member of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. Some say that the money will be used as a "tool in the pre-election patronage machine of the ruling [ZANU-PF] party," which faces a "serious challenge" from the opposition in next year's national elections. Others say that the money might be funneled into other government interests, such as paying for fuel imports or funding the military's involvement in the Congo. Although Deputy Health Minister Dr. P. David Parirenyatwa denied such allegations in a Times interview, the "frustration at the pace of distribution has fed suspicion among ordinary people," the paper reports. Last month, hundreds of people gathered to protest the government's handling of the trust fund. "If every person sees it on their pay slips, they feel they're contributing to this national cause, but if nothing is happening and they don't see any movement, people become cynical," Robert Hecht, an associate director of UNAIDS, said.
A 'Crucial Challenge'
Parirenyatwa "promised" that the money would soon be disbursed, but added that the government was being cautious to ensure that the money reaches the right people. "It's a no-win situation ... When we started disbursing, we did it very quickly, but then people started complaining that you are giving to people who are not deserving, so now we are very careful," he said. However, Dr. Sunanda Ray, the director of the Harare-based Southern Africa AIDS Information Dissemination Service, said that the problems of distribution "should have been corrected by now." She added that it "seems outrageous that the bureaucrats are not able to respond." As more AIDS money is funneled into African countries, governments are faced with the "crucial challenge" of distributing the money "quickly and fairly," Hecht said. Although Zimbabwe is the only country with an AIDS tax, other countries have found ways to push more money toward AIDS. For example, Cameroon is using debt relief savings to add to its AIDS budget, and Botswana has allocated more of its existing budget toward fighting AIDS (Cauvin, New York Times, 8/19).