NOTEBOOK: On predicting the future and being wrong …

The gains of debt relief accumulated over the last decade are fast being wiped out, and annual debt savings today are grossly overshadowed by the unprecedented drain on [African nations’] budgets due to record oil prices. – Africa Energy Crisis Worsens, Center for American Progress

It wasn’t too long ago that African debt relief was all the rage among the do-gooder jet-set. Bono, Bob Geldof, Oprah Winfrey, and even the Pope were calling for, and receiving, massive debt relief pledges from European countries and the United States. This was the era of US$20 oil, a time that doesn’t seem that long ago.

Among the many predictions of debt relief, which was cast in terms of a moral imperative, were improvements in education, health care, infrastructure, and economic development. The argument was that the countries of Africa were little more than resource pits to be mined by the first (mostly Western) world, and that debt was the chains that kept the little countries down.

All of this had some truth to it. Nigeria was the classic example. It is perhaps the richest oil producing country in Africa , but is practically run by the oil majors and has a standard of living approaching that of Haiti.

Debt relief was all fine and good in theory. But who knew oil would surpass US$70 a barrel within a few short years? Some industry and academic types, of course, knew energy was an emerging problem. But politically, it wasn’t a particularly interesting topic when President Bush was threatening far more telegenic world events in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. So here we are some five years later, and it’s oil that continues to keep the little countries down.

Of course, it isn’t only oil. But energy is becoming a problem ever bit as pressing as global warming, or AIDS for that matter. As recent reports out of Zimbabwe have shown, a collapsing economy seems to have put the kibosh on rising HIV infection rates more effectively than any approach to date. People don’t like the idea that dangerous behavior is suppressed when the money dries up because it feels like a kind of unfair coercion, which is quite an irony in the face of neonatal circumcision being proposed for many of these same countries.

The problem with this particular issue is that the global fight over energy resources will be won by the rich countries. Oil is a fungible commodity that goes to the highest bidder. First in line will be the developed countries with a close second taken by indispensable emerging economies such as India, China, and Brazil.

The unintended consequences could become far more dire very soon. Bio-fuels have gotten a big boost from Bush, supported by the US farm sector. This has resulted in higher prices for staple foods. And water shortages have become a danger as well.

What does all of this have to do with circumcision and HIV? Plenty. No one can predict the future. And nowhere is that more true than in the area of HIV/AIDS. Energy shocks, a vaccine, or a more sober attitude could all emerge to change the course of the epidemic or of the nascent American (and increasingly Australian) push to go international with circumcision.

Not long ago, intactivists were longing for the day circumcision would be largely stamped out in the US. The light at the end of the tunnel was visible. Then a small group of academics convinced a desperate HIV/AIDS research community to promote the practice. And here we are in a setback. For good or bad, we just can’t know what’s ahead. Reason for optimism? It has to be.

About David Wilton

fronterizo, public defender, intactivist, gay
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