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The Untold Story

The following is Cameron Strang's First Word column from the January/February 2209 issue of RELEVANT. Click here to read the entire issue online, or click here to subscribe: 

When publishing a magazine, you’re always on the lookout for untold stories. It’s fun to open people’s eyes to ideas, people and issues they may not have known about, challenge perceptions and promote things that deserve broader recognition.

Sometimes that’s expressed by devoting pages to emerging artists we love, like Lykke Li, Jose Gonzalez or Cool Hand Luke (hey, we’re doing that in this issue—imagine that). Or by putting someone you probably have never heard of, Pete Greig, on our cover because he’s leading a significant, countercultural spiritual movement that’s canvassing the globe. 

Recently, I was reminded of one of the most significant untold stories of our generation, and it happens to center on our outgoing president. It’s a story so important that I contend a hundred years from now, it will actually be the primary thing history uses to define President George W. Bush’s administration. And it has gone virtually unreported by the media.

Dec. 1, 2008, marked the 20th anniversary of World AIDS Day. To commemorate it, Pastor Rick Warren hosted a Saddleback Civil Forum on Global Health in Washington, D.C., gathering non-profit and faith leaders in the fight against AIDS. The guest of honor was President Bush, to whom Warren presented the International Medal of PEACE from the Global PEACE Coalition in recognition of his contribution to the fight against HIV/AIDS and other diseases. “No man in history, no world leader, has done more for global health than George W. Bush,” Warren said when giving him the award. 

For many people, that’s not what first comes to mind when they think about President Bush’s administration, but the long-term ramifications of his global health efforts cannot be understated. 

It was at the 2003 State of the Union address that Bush announced the formation of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). At the time, only 50,000 people living with AIDS in Africa were able to receive anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs. PEPFAR’s ambitious goal was to increase that number to 2 million in five years—a milestone they’ve actually now surpassed.

Those people getting treatment and education have actually led to another 8 million people not contracting the disease who otherwise would have. Ten million lives saved. And of those, 4 million are orphans, the majority of whom were orphaned because both parents died of AIDS. 

PEPFAR is touching every aspect of African society, providing hope to a generation that has been dying off at an alarming rate. 

So why has PEPFAR worked where other efforts failed? President Bush insisted on collaboration with African leaders—partnering with them instead of merely pushing our strategies—and then holding those partners accountable for results. 

“The innovation was trusting leaders at the local level,” Bush said at the forum. “Instead of saying, ‘We’re going to tell you what to do,’ we helped them determine their own strategies for each country. When they develop the strategy, it’s easier to hold  the strategy developer to account.

“It’s the timeless management principal of aligning authority and responsibility,” he said. “If you disassociate authority and responsibility, you can’t have accountability.”

The measurable and unprecedented success of PEPFAR not only led President Bush to re-authorize it this past summer, he actually pushed through a tripling of its funding. For him it was a moral imperative that was non-negotiable.

“A president must have a firm set of principals from which he will not deviate,” Bush said. “I believe in the universality of freedom, and I believe freedom is universal because of an almighty God. It’s not just freedom from tyranny that the U.S. must become involved in, I believe it’s freedom from disease, freedom from hunger, freedom from deprivation. If you believe in the universality of freedom, then you should not shy away from doing your duty.”

About eight months ago, I traveled to Rwanda with Pastor Warren. While there, I saw PEPFAR everywhere. In virtually every village, there was a clinic or a hospital or a school that was receiving life-saving vaccines, training and education because of PEPFAR. It’s changing lives, it’s changing the course of Africa’s future. 

“They call what’s taking place in Africa ‘The Lazarus Effect’—people given up for dead now realizing there is life,” Bush said. “We are a better nation when we save lives. I wish the American people could see what we have seen after this PEPFAR initiative: People literally lining the roads in Tanzania all waving and anxious to express their love and appreciation to the American president who represents the American people.”

With the recent election almost solely focusing on change, I personally hope this is one area Barack Obama will not change course. Thankfully, he has committed to continuing PEPFAR, something that will become increasingly difficult to back up as economic pressures continue to mount domestically. But this is too important, too permanent, to renege on our word. Millions of lives literally hang in the balance.

As we look at these closing weeks of the Bush administration, it’s easy to see the challenges our country is facing and forget monumental, positive initiatives like PEPFAR. I want to publicly applaud President Bush for taking a stand when others hadn’t, and doing so without the motive of political benefit. He has stood up for those who have no voice, and he did so because it was the right thing to do.

“I believe to whom much is given, much is required,” Bush said. “And when you have somebody say ‘There’s a pandemic that you can help,’ and you do nothing about it, then you have frankly disgraced the office [of president].”

It’s a wake-up call for all of us. What are we doing with what we’ve been given? We may not be a president who can push forward a strategy that will change the fate of a continent, but we can all do more with the influence, creativity and resources God has entrusted us with.

If we each strive to live outwardly, selflessly and intentionally, history will be altered. May each of our lives be the next great untold story.

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