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Stephen Lewis's closing remarks at the International AIDS Conference have sparked controversy in the AIDS community because Mr. Lewis, speaking in his capacity as the UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, lambasted the South African government for its AIDS policies. Mr. Lewis's choice of language was indeed quite inflammatory, but the substance of his comments was quite accurate. Namely, South Africa continues to promote policies that are antithetical to stopping the spread of AIDS. Yahoo News reported this week that "South Africa amazed conference delegates with its exhibition stall which displayed beetroot, garlic and lemons alongside containers of anti-AIDS medicines."
I agree with what Mr. Lewis said but I'm not sure he should have said it. No, I'm not worried about offending South Africa; instead, I'm worried that his comments on South Africa overshadowed the important messages contained in the rest of his remarks, such as the need to end the gender divide, provide nutritional supplements to people infected with HIV and deal with the impending crisis of AIDS orphans. The New York Times article on Mr. Lewis's speech was headlined "U.N. Official Assails South Africa on Its Response to AIDS." There were scarcely few details in the article about anything other than South Africa.
As the keynote speaker at the conference, Mr. Lewis had the opportunity to set the tone for the fight against AIDS moving forward. South African critiques aside, his comments were structured in just that manner-- as a roadmap for how the international community should proceed in tackling the pandemic. I can only assume that Mr. Lewis decided to take a gamble predicated on a cynical (albeit accurate) view of the media-- that a few controversial comments about South Africa might do more to change that country's policies than a speech with the right prescriptions but no controversies could do to impact the global AIDS agenda. Let's hope his gamble proves correct!
CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.