AIDS and the contradictions of Spanish development cooperation in Equatorial Guinea

Tuesday 20 May 2008 by CEPRID

Agustin Velloso 20 - V - 2008 CEPRID

At the end of October 2007 in Madrid, Spanish President Zapatero promised 0.7% of GDP towards development aid during some workshops promoted by the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID) and presided over by Queen Sofía. As he did so, a boy we can call Miguel, ill with AIDS in Equatorial Guinea, was dying in his mother’s arms in the hospital of Malabo the country’s capital. His doctors administered an extract from tree bark instead of the internationally recognized treatment, anti-retrovirals.

These drugs are available in Equatorial Guinea. International agencies donate them. One is not dealing with witchdoctors but doctors trained by the AECID. Among that agency’s purposes is training these doctors to treat AIDS and to advise their clinical work with AIDS patients.

The reason Miguel did not receive the right treatment is the corruption of the people responsible for caring for his health. According to ASODEGUE - the Association for Democratic Solidarity with Equatorial Guinea - the Prime Minister of that country called a meeting months ago of the national coordinators of the campaign against AIDS and of the international agencies working in the country. Among these are the delegates of the World Health Organization and AECID’s experts who advise Equatorial Guinea’s Health Ministry.

A niece of President Obiang also took part in the meeting. She is not a doctor but a businesswoman. She presented the meeting’s participants with a project to produce the bark extract - called Fagaricine - to market it as an AIDS treatment. She also asked their opinion about the project.

In its January 2008 Republic of Congo WHO Office Information Bulletin, the WHO notes "Fagaricine is not an AIDS drug." (http://www.who.int/countries/cog/publications/missive_27.pdf)

Whatever the opinion of the experts may have been, shortly afterwards a tragedy took place when a group of patients, including Miguel, attended their routine appointment in the Malabo Hospital to collect their treatment : anti-retrovirals. But they received another one instead : Fagaricine. The group of guinea pigs included children and adults and at least one expectant mother. No explanation was given, most of the people did not even know.

They soon began to get worse. Some died. The population became concerned. Despite foreign aid and government propaganda, AIDS treatment in the country is a disaster. Currently, Fagaricine is no longer prescribed in that hospital but it is sold in a few pharmacies.

Meanwhile, Obiang and his circle receive medical care abroad. Some via payment of astronomical bills in private clinics in the United States and others for free in Spain’s public hospitals. At the same time, in Equatorial Guinea private clinics flourish whose services only the very well-off can afford. Several are owned by President Obiang’s wife and most of them have his family members as partners.

The government is unable to provide health care to the population. As opposition leader Plácido Mico noted in November 2007 in the National Economic Conference, "the health care situation in Equatorial Guinea, a multimillionaire country, is without doubt the best example of our deep inequalities, injustices and social exclusion, as is the distribution of wealth in the country. Apart from Mongomo, no general hospital in the country permits even a straightforward x-ray." (http://www.cpds-gq.org/comunicados2007/noticia071113.html)

Equatorial Guinea is one of the main producers of oil and gas in Africa and has been a most favoured beneficiary of technical and economic aid from Spain for decades. The AECID implements its health work there " via various projects with one common denominator : the formation of a framework permitting the institution building of the National Health System."

One of these projects, the control of endemic diseases, is carried out for AECID by Spanish state bodies, the National Centre of Tropical Medicine and the Carlos the Third Health Institute. With formidable funding, they aim "to achieve the training and improvement in operative capacity of local technical personnel in the Health System and in the National Programmes." (www.maec.es) The main endemic disease is AIDS. The argument the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Cooperation’s office in Equatorial Guinea use to justify their expenditure is that it is being used to build "local capacity" for each of the "National Programmes".

Tuberculosis and AIDS are allowed to get out of control at the same time discriminatory laws are issued against people who are HIV positive, like Presidential Decree No. 107/2006 of November 20th 2007, which ordains "the requirement of an HIV/AIDS test certificate in order to obtain certain public services."

During the recent electoral campaign in Spain, María Teresa Fernández de la Vega, the Spanish government’s First Vice-President and Presidency Minister promised, alongside Miguel Angel Moratinos, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Cooperation and Leire Pajín, Secretary of State for International Cooperation, that Spain would "make history in the next four years" and be " a leader in solidarity". She also stressed that Spanish socialists believe in politics "as a means to make the world a better place" and that , since we are the eighth biggest economy in the world "we have to take on the responsibility demanded by our place on the world stage". (http://leirepajin.blogspot.com/2008/02/de-la-vega-reafirma-en-acto-de-la.html)

Despite the sonorous propaganda about international aid, more resounding still is the silence about the Obiang family’s corruption and the results of Spanish development cooperation in Equatorial Guinea.

Agustín Velloso is Professor of Education Sciences at the National Univeristy of Education in Madrid. English version of this article was revised by toni solo.

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