United States Wasted $1.4 Billion on Abstinence Education in Africa

By Jonathan Turley | 26 July 2016

An abstinence-only sex education program in Africa funded by the U.S. and promoted by religious conservatives never showed any success, yet over a 10-year period from 2004 through 2013 the government wasted hundreds of millions of dollars promoting abstinence before marriage as a way of preventing HIV in 14 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. (Source: Progressive Secular Humanist.) (Image: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

With states and cities struggling to support schools, infrastructure and other basic necessities, our government continues to spend wildly and wastefully with little political accountability. The latest such example is the $1.4 billion dollars spent on abstinence-only education as an effort to reduce the spread of HIV in sub-Saharan Africa from 2004-2013. A new study shows that the program never showed any success and yet the government continued to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into Africa because the program was politically attractive.

In 2003, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) had a requirement that one-third of the money be allocated to abstinence-only education efforts. While later dropped, we wasted $1.4 billion that could have been used for countless needed programs both domestically and internationally.

President George W. Bush proposed PEPFAR in 2003, but Congress insisted that a third of the money for HIV prevention should be earmarked for programs teaching abstinence before marriage and faithfulness. The result were billboards and radio ads that were viewed as useless and ineffectual.

Eran Bendavid, an infectious disease doctor, and his team at Stanford University studied surveys given to nearly a half-million people in 22 countries. Fourteen countries received funding from PEFPAR between 2004 and 2013 while eight did not. The results showed that there was no real change in the conduct of young people, something most Americans could have told you before burning $1.4 billion. There was also no detectable differences in the rates of teenage pregnancies, average number of sexual partners and age at first sexual intercourse in countries that had received PEFPAR money. It turns out that a billboards in the middle of a highway has as little impact in Africa as it does America.

That lesson however cost $1.4 billion. The “successful” element was that politicians could claim that they insisted that AIDS money be used to fight promiscuity.

Jonathan Turley is a nationally recognized legal scholar who has written extensively in areas ranging from constitutional law to legal theory to tort law. His award-winning blog is routinely ranked as one of the most popular legal blogs.

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  1. I'm an American expat living in Uganda. In Ugandan culture, married people sleep around, but rarely admit it or talk about it. My favorite anti-HIV billboard had a photo of a woman saying "I'm so proud of my husband… when he's off with one of his side-dishes, he always uses a condom so he won't infect me!". (A "side dish" is a Ugandan English term for a mistress.) The billboard was quite unusual in its honesty.

    The idea of abstinence education working here is ridiculous to anyone who knows the culture.


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