The United States challenged other countries Wednesday to pay their share of the world's premier AIDS-fighting fund by the end of September or lose $120 million in U.S. cash.
At issue is financing for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, a program initiated by the United Nations.
It was supposed to provide roughly $7 billion a year to fight those diseases. But it is facing a serious budget shortfall that AIDS activists say jeopardizes efforts to stem the growing epidemic in poor countries.
Wednesday's announcement sparked more concern.
Congress set aside $547 million as the U.S. contribution to the fund this year, but on the condition that the U.S. money could not exceed 33 percent of the fund's total donations. It was considered an incentive to ensure other donors pitch in, said Randall Tobias, the U.S. global AIDS coordinator.
As a result, donations from other countries or private donors had to total $1.11 billion for the Swiss-based Global Fund to get all the U.S. cash, Tobias said. But he calculates the non-U.S. share is $243 million short.
So the United States is set to withhold a final $120 million contribution, a far higher amount than AIDS advocates had expected.
But Tobias announced Wednesday he'd make an exception: If other donors make up the shortfall by Sept. 30, he'll release the U.S. cash after all.
"The U.S. government certainly wants the Global Fund to have this money, but we have to provide it in accordance with U.S. law," Tobias said. "I am very, very hopeful that the rest of the world will take action."
The announcement came after negotiations between Tobias and Global Fund Director Richard G.A. Feachem.
Countries pledge how much they'll give to the Global Fund, but when they deliver the actual cash varies, with many waiting until closer to year's end. Congress, on the other hand, set July 31 as the date that the Tobias' office is supposed to calculate the final U.S. payment.
"We appreciate Ambassador Tobias' decision," said Global Fund spokesman Jim Palmer. "By accepting that other countries' deadlines don't necessarily conform to the United States' deadline," the Global Fund should be able to collect all its pledged donations.
But other AIDS specialists worried that another six weeks isn't enough.
"This is not a matter of arithmetic. This is a matter of life and death," said Stephen Lewis, the U.N.'s special envoy to Africa on AIDS. "If Mr. Tobias has been given flexibility, I would appeal to him to exercise the flexibility to the end of the year rather than the end of September."
"The Global Fund needs the money in the bank now," added David Bryden of the Global AIDS Alliance. "That would be a more effective way of challenging the rest of the world to donate what it should."
Tobias said if the Global Fund doesn't get the $120 million, it will be spent on other global AIDS work, but he couldn't detail how.