Sister Gladness Ntuli meets with patient Thabisile Mazibuko to review her health and distribute antiretroviral drugs for treatment of AIDS at a clinic in Phelandaba, South Africa, that operates under a partnership between the South African Bishops' Conference and Catholic Relief Services. CNS photo/Debbie DeVoe, CRS

Church advocates call for preserving funding for foreign aid programs

By  Dennis Sadowski, Catholic News Service
  • June 21, 2012

WASHINGTON - Federal funding for foreign poverty-focused development and humanitarian aid programs must be preserved as Congress continues debating the fiscal year 2013 budget, said officials from two church agencies.

In particular, officials from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Relief Services called for support of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, because of high levels of success in the prevention and treatment of AIDS around the world under the program.

The pleas came during a June 20 teleconference with staff members of local church charitable agencies, parishioners and interested individuals.

While the officials focused on efforts related to AIDS services, they also identified programs in nutrition, maternal health and child care, malaria and other infectious diseases, migration and refugee assistance and international peacekeeping operations as vital to the lives of millions of poor people around the world.

The funds in question totaled about $17.5 billion in fiscal year 2012, about 0.5 percent of the overall federal budget, said Virginia Farris, foreign policy adviser in the bishops' Office of International Justice and Peace.

Similar funding levels are included in the 2013 budget.

Michele Broemmelsiek, global chief of party for AIDS relief at Catholic Relief Services, pointed to large reductions in mortality from AIDS in Zambia because people had access to antiretroviral drugs and vital prevention programs led by church-based agencies.

She said CRS found that deaths from AIDS dropped from about 120,000 annually in 2001 to 56,000 per year in 2007 in the southern African country because of PEPFAR-funded programs. Transmission of the disease from mother to child during pregnancy fell by 90 percent because the appropriate drugs were available under the program, she added.

"Treatment (of AIDS) is prevention," Broemmelsiek said.

"We are seeking consistent care as well," she continued. "We want everyone to have hope that they will be treated for this chronic illness."

Broemmelsiek also shared data showing that because of the availability of the drugs the number of people living with the AIDS virus is increasing, the number of people newly infected by the virus is declining and the overall number of worldwide deaths from the disease has declined since 2004.

An estimated 34 million people worldwide were living with the AIDS virus in 2010, according to the World Health Organization. About 1.8 million people died from the disease that year.

CRS has received funding under PEPFAR since the program began in 2004. PEPFAR was supported by the USCCB after its staff worked to ensure that conscience protections were included in the law authorizing the program, Farris said.

"We're talking about preserving human life and dignity," she said. "HIV programs are literally saving lives and often right before our eyes."

Kathleen Kahlau, an adviser in the Office of Legislative Affairs at CRS in Washington, urged teleconference participants to contact their representatives in both houses of Congress to preserve funding for the foreign aid programs.

"There's not a great deal of support for foreign assistance, but we feel a good many number of members (of Congress) understand the good that is being done with this funding," Kahlau said.

"We can't balance the budget on the backs of the poor, whether they are the poor here or the poor around the world whom CRS serves," she said.

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