National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: China

My exclusive interview this week with a leading health official from the U.S. working on the AIDS crisis in Zambia, Africa, revealed conditions on the ground there almost too horrible to describe. There is no one critical problem there that is not interlinked with at least a half-dozen others and the conventional wisdom is that the best case scenario for a turnaround is at least 40 years away.

But as far as the U.S. or any Western interests are concerned, that day will likely never come, since their current foreign policy vacuum in that region has left it to strident and persistent advances by the Chinese.

China is moving into the most ravaged areas of Africa with no humanitarian intent. On the contrary, the Chinese are capitalizing on the corruption at the top of governments there to trade financial payoffs for titles to massive chunks of land rich in untapped natural resources.

The U.S. has turned its back to this process, from combined diplomatic, geopolitical and financial aid standpoints, because of its preoccupation with Iraq, the official said.

So the unspeakable human crisis there is not only a matter of concern for the people in that region, but for the wider global interests of the U.S., as well. The U.S. is stuck in the Iraq quagmire, having expended over $500 billion there to date, in an intended oil grab against perceived Russian and Chinese designs. Yet because of that, it is permitting access to even more vital resources in Africa and elsewhere to the same strategic competitors, over the poverty-stricken and disease-riddled rotting bodies of millions.

It is impossible to imagine anything but a massive shift of focus by the U.S. and its allies to turn this regrettable inevitability around.

As it is now, up to 40 percent of the population of Zambia and surrounding countries is infected with the HIV virus that causes AIDS. In Zambia, because of AIDS, the average life expectancy has dropped from 57 to 37 years of age in 20 years.

One out of every two children born there today will die from AIDS-related factors before age 24.

The death rate has created a massive displaced children problem and the local government has no interest in setting up orphanages. Instead, these AIDS orphans either move in with extended family members, live on the streets or are periodically rounded up into military camps.

These children are then either recruited into the exploding trend of child soldiers used as fodder in genocidal tribal wars, or into global human trafficking networks, shipped around the world and forced to become sex workers. The primary destinations of these networks are the large coastal urban centers of the U.S., the official said.

Neither condoms nor AIDS drugs are working in arresting the spread of HIV in Zambia, she added, noting that cultural mores and a pervasive sense of despair make them ineffective.

People living in conditions of extreme poverty have no energy to think beyond how they’re going to eat from day to day, and have no sense that they could work for a better future for themselves, or their children, in the long term. There is simply no notion of opportunities for a better life.

Foreign aids organizations are treated with great suspicion, with Afro-Americans from the U.S. being considered “white.” The suspicions are fueled by local witch doctors whose prescriptions for virility encourage sexual practices by adults with young children too heinous to describe explicitly. Polygamy, without the formality of marriage or commitment, is the norm.

Corrupt local leaders hold aid efforts at bay, demanding huge bribes and diverting resources for their own uses. And there is simply no way the U.S. or any other outside nation can carry out programs in those countries without the blessings of those leaders.

There appears to be no sweeping proposal for a “silver bullet” to fix all this. The only way to start, however, would be for the global community, most importantly the U.S., to begin fixing its gaze on what’s happening there, not only from a humanitarian but from a geo-strategic standpoint.