Getting to the Root of Poverty and AIDS

Interview With Riccardo Cascioli

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ROME, DEC. 13, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Hunger remains an enormous problem worldwide, says the annual report of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.



The new FAO report, entitled "State of Food Insecurity in the World," states that although the percentage of people suffering from hunger is decreasing, the absolute number of victims is increasing.

Between 2000 and 2002, 852 million people suffered hunger, including 815 million in developing countries.

The main causes of death, in countries where the situation is deteriorating, are wars and the spread of malaria and AIDS, which worsen the chronic state of malnutrition.

To better understand the enormity of the phenomenon, ZENIT interviewed Riccardo Cascioli, president of the European Center of Studies on the Environment, Population and Development.

Q: The FAO report speaks of millions of dead every year due to hunger and malnourishment, and yet Europe has set limits to food production. How do you explain this paradox?

Cascioli: This is certainly a "scandalous" paradox which cannot leave us indifferent. At the same time, however, we must beware of the demagogy of those who say that it is enough to redistribute food to resolve all the problems.

The sending of foodstuffs from Europe to the Third World is useful and necessary only for emergencies; otherwise, it becomes harmful welfarism.

Many factors contribute to the situation of so many peoples. For example, it is interesting to note that the FAO report states that the worst food crises are caused by conflicts which make all development impossible. However, above all, there must be reflection on the productive capacity of poor countries.

A fact that speaks for itself, for instance, is that in Italy the production of rice per hectare varies from 70 to 85 quintals, in Africa from 4 to 5.

The ILO [International Labor Organization] report published on December 7 stresses this very problem: There are 550 million workers in the Third World who live on less than $1 a day; that is, their work produces very little.

Here is the point. It is a problem of global development that entails economic, social and political aspects -- but, I would say, above all, cultural, because efficiency and productivity depend ultimately on the meaning given to work and to the person.

Q: After malaria, AIDS is one of the main causes of death in Africa. In your opinion, what are the solutions?

Cascioli: Let us begin by establishing that the policies followed by international agencies until now, especially in developing countries, have been manifestly disastrous. Especially blameworthy is prevention based exclusively on the distribution of condoms, culpably described as "safe sex."

Research and experience show that condoms reduce the possibility of infection almost by 85%, but do not eliminate it. Moreover, the feeling of safety that they create leads to the proliferation of risky behavior responsible for the epidemic, thus canceling the possible benefits. Proof of this is that the African countries with the highest distribution of condoms, are also those with the highest rate of HIV infection.

Something similar can be said about the cures. To reduce the whole problem in developing countries to the availability of low-cost medicines is to be misleading. They are absolutely necessary, but the presence in the territory of personnel able to distribute such medicines and above all to educate people, is fundamental. Because it is also important to be very clear about the fact that AIDS is a sickness of poverty and it is illusory to think of arresting it by investing only in health remedies.

The fight against AIDS is to be addressed instead within global development policies, whose pivot must be education. Reality demonstrates this: The only positive examples of the fight against AIDS have been where education has highlighted responsibility and respect of the person and first of all, therefore, abstinence and fidelity to one's partner.

In Uganda for example, the only case of investment at the national level, the rates of HIV infection between 1991 and 2000 fell from 20% to 6%. Other positive examples were seen in Senegal, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, but the reason in all was a "change in behavior," in the sense of reduction in the number of partners and an increase of the age for the first sexual relationship.

It is no wonder, then, that the Bush administration, for example, emphasizes religious organizations in the fight against AIDS, because the latter prove to be the most important agents in education, above all thanks to their presence among the people. Having shared the situation for decades, they are, therefore, credible.

I am speaking of Catholic organizations, but not only of them, even though health institutions connected with the Catholic Church are alone responsible for close to 30% of the care of AIDS patients.