US Congress debate: Kenya risks losing HIV funding

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Kenya may lose HIV funding if the United States Congress does not resolve the current debate by next month.

In June this year, a group of Kenyan Members of Parliament and religious leaders wrote a letter to the US Congress with claims that funding from the US President's Emergency Plan for Aids Relief in the country was helping prop up abortion.

The letter titled "Pepfar and African Values", sent to several leaders of the US House Representatives and Senate, stated that the HIV funding allocated to Kenya was being used to finance family planning and reproductive health principles, which include abortion, and this goes against our fundamental values regarding life, family, and religion.

The parliamentarians cautioned against the reauthorisation of HIV funding to Kenya until Pepfar remains true to its original mission and respects the norms, traditions, and values of the country. 

“As you now seek to reauthorise Pepfar funding, we want to express our concerns and suspicions about this funding. We ask that those partner organizations with whom the US government partners implement Pepfar programs in ways that are cognizant and respectful of our beliefs and not cross over into promoting divisive ideas and practices that are not consistent with those of Africa,” the letter says.

“Again, we thank the American people for their extraordinary generosity and solidarity with us and ask that our voices be heard and acknowledged and our beliefs safeguarded in future Pepfar programming,” 

The letter was signed by 10 Members of Parliament: Paul Katana, George Kaluma, Joyce Kamene, Charles Nguna, Caroline Ngelechei, Suzanne Kiamba, Beatrice Ogola, Farah Maalim, and Joseph Kahangara. 

Last month, US Republicans picked up on the issue and demanded that Pepfar funding for 2023-24 (due in September) to Kenya be suspended until the issue is resolved. 

“If Pepfar doesn’t get reauthorised, the program can continue but it could send some pretty chilling messages to people in the field who depend on Pepfar for life support,” said Jennifer Kates, director of global health and HIV policy at KFF, a health policy organisation that has tracked the provisions set to expire September 30.

The Congress debate that will determine whether Kenya gets the money is ongoing. The outcome will affect the future of the programme, hence sparking confusion with many civil societies calling on the withdrawal of the letter. 

Over 50 civil societies have written to the Speaker of National Assembly, Moses Wetang’ula, to protest the MPs’ move, which they say would jeopardise the lives of over 55 million Kenyans who benefit from HIV programmes supported by Pepfar as well as more than 1.6 million people living with HIV in Kenya.

The US has since threatened not to renew the funding which contributes more than 50 per cent of total HIV/Aids care funds in Kenya. This is happening as various stakeholders in the HIV space are gathered in Mombasa County to take stock of what has been happening in the country.

“Pepfar programme is now set for renewal. We are apprehensive that the claims by our Members of Parliament in the letter may jeopardise the reauthorisation of the programme. Our own Members of Parliament are expressing baseless claims which could cost Kenya funding for services such as testing, diagnosing, prevention and, majorly, the dispensing of antiretroviral medicines,” said Allan Maleche, Executive Director at the Kenya Legal & Ethical Issues Network on HIV and Aids.

Kenya was expecting Sh50 billion in HIV-Aids funding for the financial year 2023-24 once the current funding period lapses on September 30. 

As a result of this letter, US Republicans now want the Biden government to suspend the funding reauthorisation due next week, until a clause is added to impose the Mexico City Policy (Global Gag Rule) on their Aids programmes in Africa and around the Global South.

The Global Gag Rule was in effect during President Donald Trump's administration and requires that any recipient of funding from the US government not engage in providing services or even information about abortion care, even if those services are not being funded by the US.

President Joe Biden withdrew this policy (the Global Gag Rule) when he took office, but Republicans now want it back as a condition for this specific Pepfar programme.

Mr Biden's handlers have termed as baseless claims that the funds were being used to support abortions.

Mr Maleche added, “It is disheartening to witness the spread of misinformation regarding Pepfar's alleged involvement in supporting abortion and allegedly disregarding family values. These claims are not only baseless but also detrimental to the progress we have made in combating the HIV epidemic. 

He adds; “It is important to note that Pepfar's focus is on saving lives, promoting health, and upholding human rights, with a very limited mandate restricted to HIV care and management.”

The societies indicated that the gains Kenya has realised two decades after PEPFAR was introduced are great. The programme has continuously met the needs of millions of Kenyans by providing lifesaving drugs that were previously beyond reach. 

“From the current funding landscape in Kenya, without Pepfar support, millions of lives would be at risk. Kenya will have a major funding gap in these programs. Further, none of these funding areas violates ‘our core beliefs concerning life, family and religion’ as alleged,” the civil societies said.

The civil societies are calling upon Mr Wetang’ula to clarify to Kenyans the National Assembly's position on the suspension of Pepfar funding to Kenya.

“We are united in calling upon the US Congress to fully reauthorise Pepfar,” they wrote.