The birddoggers are back.
Facing the most daunting political and economic climate in years, AIDS activists have relaunched efforts to follow presidential candidates on the campaign trail, challenging them to commit to funding the fight against global AIDS.
The tactic, called birddogging, has been used for years by activists to get politicians to go on record saying they'll ramp up AIDS funding. Sometimes, activists merely attend a town hall, step up to the mic, and ask a candidate for a pledge. Other times, participants get more aggressive, interrupting speeches, waving signs and participating in acts of civil disobedience.
For AIDS birddoggers, though, this presidential campaign could be the most difficult yet.
First, activists are up against drastic U.S. austerity measures. If the congressional committee charged with trimming $1.5 trillion from the deficit decides to cut the tiny portion of the budget dedicated to foreign aid, that will mean funding decreases for PEPFAR and the Global Fund.
Second, birddoggers are targeting some of the most socially conservative candidates to vie for a spot in the White House -- individuals who, in the past, have proven averse to funding both domestic and global AIDS programs. The top two winners of Saturday's straw poll in Iowa -- Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and Congressman Ron Paul -- both voted against the 2008 bill that authorized $48 billion to be sent abroad to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria via the Global Fund. Gov. Rick Perry's Texas, meanwhile is projecting a nearly $20 million shortfall to its AIDS Drug Assistance Program.
"We're dealing with people who are qualitatively different than anyone we've ever had to deal with," said Gregg Gonsalves, a veteran birddogger and fellow at the Open Society Institute. "If Obama loses, just imagine what Rick Perry is going to do with AIDS policy, or Michele Bachmann, or even Mitt Romney."
Still, these challenges have not stymied birddoggers, many of whom are college students and members of Health GAP or the Student Global AIDS Campaign, two U.S.-based activist groups committed to fighting AIDS abroad.
Emily Li, 19, a sophomore at Dartmouth, began following potential Republican presidential candidates in the spring. "Now, since a lot of the candidates are making appearances, we're making efforts to increase our birddogging. There should be someone talking about AIDS at every one of these events."
Activist efforts this fall, she said, will concentrate on events in South Carolina and New Hampshire, the sites of the upcoming Republican primaries. Dartmouth will host a debate for Republican candidates in October, and the school's chapter of the Student Global AIDS Campaign plans to pepper the audience with students ready to ask candidates for a global AIDS funding pledge.
Just this week, Kaiser and UNAIDs released a study that found a 10 percent drop in disbursement of funds for the global AIDS response -- a drop primarily attributed to a reduction in disbursement by the U.S., according to a joint press release.
"That study just shows the importance of birddogging, of focusing on global AIDS, because it's obviously going on the political back burner," said Li. "But the U.S. is still a leader. ... And if we're decreasing our funding for such an important issue, it gives other countries a guideline that says, 'Ok, it's not important to fix this.'"