When we started our HIV/AIDS Initiative at Saddleback Church 13 years ago, we reminded our congregation, “If you’re going to be like Jesus, you have to learn to be compassionate toward people when they’re sick.” Even in this time of tight budgets, America’s leaders should show precisely this kind of compassion for our brothers and sisters living with HIV and AIDS in Africa and around the world.
Key international programs we have supported through the years are the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. These groups are close to turning the corner on this global pandemic.
When PEPFAR began in 2003, fewer than 50,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa were being treated for HIV/AIDS. Today, the aids relief program supports 11.5 million patients with antiretroviral medicines, a 50% increase just since 2014. With its help, nearly 2 million babies have been born HIV-free to women who were infected with the virus. The Global Fund jointly supports these programs in countries and leverages $2 for every $1 committed by the U.S., ensuring the response is global and not just financed by the American taxpayer.
PEPFAR was started by George W. Bush and extended by Barack Obama, and has strong support from both Republicans and Democrats. While President Trump’s 2018 budget would continue the program for current patients, he has the opportunity to go further — to enhance PEPFAR and make it truly his own.
The 2017 budget provides $8.7 billion for all global health programs. The White House proposal for 2018 would cut about $2 billion, including $800 million from PEPFAR and $200 million from the Global Fund. We’re concerned that these reductions would move us in the wrong direction.
So far, Congress is ignoring the president. The House Appropriations Committee last week approved a bill that keeps PEPFAR and the Global Fund at their current funding level in fiscal 2018, which starts Oct. 1. Still, this is just one step in a long process.
For those of us driven by our faith to help people less fortunate than ourselves, it is difficult to watch programs cut or changed in ways that hurt people with the greatest needs — both here in the U.S. and abroad. While the administration is seeking to streamline government and limit waste, it must do this in ways that reduce suffering and not add to it, that show America’s great compassion and not disinterest.
Proverbs 3:27 tells us it is morally wrong to withhold assistance from those who need it when we have the power to help them. In our lifetime, U.S. leadership in the fight against HIV is probably the greatest expression of a powerful nation helping those in need in developing nations.
As a congressman in 2008, Vice President Pence said on the floor of the House: “The Bible tells us, ‘To whom much is given, much is expected,’ and I believe the United States has a moral obligation to lead the world in confronting the pandemic of HIV/AIDS.”
Supporting PEPFAR also has a proven practical benefit: It makes America safer. When we save the lives of people dying from AIDS, rescue orphans and ensure that babies are born HIV-free, America makes life-long friends — and we create a healthier world for ourselves, too.
During travels to Africa, we have been often told, “Please thank Americans for PEPFAR. It saved my husband’s life and kept our family from economic disaster. We will always be grateful to America, and we pray for you.”
But don’t just take our word for it. A Bipartisan Policy Center study headed by two former Senate majority leaders, Republican Bill Frist and Democrat Tom Daschle, compared U.S. approval ratings globally to approval among African countries that received PEPFAR. As the program was taking hold in 2007, both ratings were roughly 40%. By 2011, the average approval rating had risen only slightly overall but in PEPFAR countries it had doubled. That study also found that in PEPFAR countries, political stability increased, violence declined and economies improved.
Beyond that, we have faith that the return on the same or larger investment in HIV will provide vastly greater returns — both in African lives saved and in American lives protected. These decisions should ensure that one of America’s greatest gifts to the world’s most vulnerable stays in place. As Congress debates future budgets, we hope the support of PEPFAR and global health in general continues to reflect the generosity of the American people.
Since we became aware of the pandemic, we have dreamed of the day that HIV/AIDS will end — lending our efforts to preventing new HIV infections, caring for the sick and encouraging adoption of the orphans left behind. We’re getting closer to that miraculous day, but we can’t slow down; we can’t take any backwards steps. It’s a fight we must win. We hope our president will agree.
Pastor Rick Warren and his wife Kay are co-founders of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif. Rick is the author of The Purpose-Driven Life. Kay is the author of Choose Joy and Sacred Privilege. Follow them on Twitter: @RickWarren and @KayWarren1