The leaders of Commonwealth countries meeting in Trinidad and Tobago were facing a scandal last night after it emerged that the organisation has withdrawn most of its funding for preventing HIV and Aids.
The Commonwealth of Nations is home to 30 per cent of the world's population but 60 per cent of its HIV victims, and the pandemic is acknowledged as a "Commonwealth emergency". Despite this, a decision was taken without public consultation earlier this year to stop funding the only Commonwealth programme that directly tackles the crisis.
Over the past four years, nearly £400,000 has been spent through the Commonwealth Foundation to create an international network of experts, activists and civic organisations working on HIV/Aids. The foundation, funded by taxpayers in the 53 member states of the Commonwealth, decided in April to switch the money from the Pan-Commonwealth HIV/Aids Network to cultural activities without informing its partners, according to confidential emails seen by The Independent.
A storm of protest followed behind closed doors in which the foundation was accused of "jumping ship" and its director, Mark Collins, was asked to explain the "abandonment". In an email exchange with Mr Collins in April, the Canadian scientist John W Foster, of the North-South Institute in Ottawa, wrote to express his "deep surprise and concern regarding the news that HIV/Aids is no longer a priority of the ... foundation".
He added: "This is particularly surprising given ... that the highest incidence countries are either current or former (Zimbabwe) members of the Commonwealth, many of them resource-challenged and least-developed states."
Mr Foster asked for the decision to be reversed and demanded to know the rationale behind it.
In addition to southern Africa, which has been hit harder by the disease than any other region, the Commonwealth includes the Caribbean, where HIV and Aids are the leading causes of death in adults aged 25 to 44.
While some experts said this week that the Aids pandemic might have peaked, no one disputes that it is crippling many developing countries.
"For the Commonwealth not to prioritise HIV/Aids in every single arm of its activities would be crazy," said Stephen Lewis, a Canadian former politician who until recently was an Aids envoy for the UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-Moon.
"If, in fact, it is off the agenda it is inexplicable." Mr Lewis, who runs a charity that helps Africans affected by HIV and Aids, added: "Taking Aids off the agenda at the height of the pandemic is like taking racism off the agenda at the height of apartheid."
The foundation's response to the furore was to deny any change in strategy. Mr Collins insisted yesterday that the network's funding had reached the end of a "three-year commitment". He has instead told the foundation's partners they can apply individually for small grants through a website.
But one of the founding members of the network, Dr Robert Carr, of the International Council of Aids Service Organisations, rejected this explanation as nonsensical.
"When we enquired about next year's funding we were told there was to be no funding," he said. "How can you do that? They came to us and persuaded us to start a civil society network and then unilaterally decided they couldn't be bothered with it."
Dr Carr said it made "no strategic sense" to spend time and money building up a network and then closing it down "without asking what happened and what did it achieve?".
The network, designed to share expertise, lobby governments, set up education schemes and strengthen civil society has been credited with shaping national strategic plans on HIV in at least two countries.
In September, confusion over the goings-on at the foundation deepened when Mr Collins abruptly suspended his own programme manager, Anisha Rajapakse, without explanation. Ms Rajapakse, who previously worked for the UN and the German government, is thought to have objected to moves to downgrade the importance of Aids work. Attempts to contact her were unsuccessful. The foundation refused The Independent's request to speak to her and would not discuss the grounds for her suspension, insisting yesterday that the matter was "internal and confidential".
When members of the Aids network, all of them recruited by Ms Rajapakse, demanded to know why she had been "silenced", several of them, including Dr Carr, were "disinvited" from the Commonwealth People's Forum – the main civil society event in the build-up to this week's summit of Commonwealth heads of government.
Lisa Williams-Lahari, an HIV and gender activist from the Pacific region, was originally invited to Trinidad by the foundation but found herself "disinvited". The justification given was that that the forum was oversubscribed, yet the next day someone else from the same Pacific network was invited to register.
"I went from an invitation, my name on a programme and preparing for my sessions in September to a wall of silence six weeks long," said Ms Lahari. "To date no one at the foundation has withdrawn their invite. They simply pretend it never happened."
James Onyango from Kenya's Aids Intervention and Prevention Project Group, said it was a scandal that members who should be working to save lives were wasting time trying to find out what was going on.
"Colonialism came to an end and this arrogance shouldn't be there," he said. "The foundation is meant to work with the people to bring change."
Mr Collins denied any strategic shift on the Commonwealth's HIV and Aids policy and said a meeting had been held by the forum this week.
"There is no intention to lower the priority of HIV and Aids in our programme. HIV and Aids remains high on the list of concerns," he said in a statement from Trinidad.
Dr Carr, who attended the meeting, described it as "a shambles". Others, speaking anonymously after the session, said it had been "incoherent" and "inconsequential".
HIV pandemic: Network in crisis
*The Commonwealth of Nations is made of 53 countries covering all continents and religions
*It is home to 30 per cent of the world's population but 60 per cent of its HIV-infected people
*24 million HIV-positive people live in the Commonwealth
*The Commonwealth Foundation invested £387,700 to create a HIV network. Members have been told to reapply to a separate fund that last year issued £37,772.
*The Caribbean has the second-highest prevalence of HIV/Aids of any region in the world
*The pandemic is the leading cause of death among Caribbean people between 15-42
*There are 430,000 HIV sufferers in the CaribbeanReuse content