Roundtable: Malaria, Darfur, Desegregation Case

Farai Chideya's guests are Bob Meadows of People magazine; Penn history professor Mary Frances Berry; and Joe Davidson of The Washington Post. Friday's topics include the White House conference on malaria, a U.N. study on abuse in Darfur and the end of a 25-year-old Alabama desegregation case.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

So joining us from NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., we've got Joe Davidson, an editor for The Washington Post, along with Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. Bob Meadows, a writer with People magazine is at our New York bureau.

Welcome everybody, and let's jump right in on this issue of malaria. Are we really making significant strides in the U.S. in terms of what we are able to offer the continent? Bob?

Mr. BOB MEADOWS (Writer, People Magazine): We definitely are. This is - I have to say this, and this may be one of the few times I actually say this - but I think President Bush actually got this one right. This is a very ambitious program. They are talking about 36 million people over the next few years. And that's - as the gentleman who just spoke said, 3,000 kids a day - a day - die from malaria in Africa.

And as he said, this is totally preventable, but I think what we need to see contributing to this great effort, $1.2 billion, there needs to be a bit more political stability in some of these countries as well, because obviously an instable government can destroy this type of program. They also need better plumbing, better sewage, because mosquitoes of course proliferate in standing water. But, no, this is a marvelous effort and I hope that the private sector gets on board as the government is pushing.

CHIDEYA: Professor Berry, can there be that workable coalition of NGOs, non-governmental organizations, private sector, the U.S. government, African governments - that's a lot of folks to pull together.

Professor MARY FRANCES BERRY (History, University of Pennsylvania): Right. And it is working. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as in so many things, is very deeply involved in a partnership on this. So is Marathon Oil Company and Noble Energy. So the private sector is involved. And one of the most heartening things I heard from an expert whom I talked to recently is that of course if children can survive until they are 5 years old, they are more likely to survive, if they can survive this and keep from dying from it by then.

And one of the things the federal government has done, and USAID agency, is to set up people who are in communities, at least one designated leader in every little community who has medication and who can dispense it to people at all hours when they need it.

And what that has done is cut down on people trying to get to clinics, trying to see where they get it and all the rest of it, and they said that this has had an enormous effect. So the private sector is involved, the NGOs are involved. And you asked earlier, why would the private sector want to be involved?

And I think that part of it is because the private sector - some people have a conscience and just as their foundations are working on other issues, they want to work on this. Also, there are great economic opportunities in Africa if one can figure out how to do something about the many diseases that beset people over there, including malaria, which is the major one.

CHIDEYA: Joe, there's one slightly controversial part of the whole anti-malaria effort, which is that they are spraying some drugs that they no longer use in the U.S. over wide areas where families who live in farms are - agents that were considered toxic in the United States, but they do kill mosquitoes.

Should we take a second look at issues like that that are part of this complicated effort?

Mr. JOE DAVIDSON (Editor, The Washington post): Well, I think that it's definitely important to look at methods, at the - or perhaps the ethical value, you might say, in certain methods of trying to eradicate diseases. And if something that's not - if it's not good enough to use in the United States, then is it good enough to use overseas?

I think the reality also is that with malaria still being a major disease in Africa and having been eradicated in the United States, I think it's important that the government, those African governments, also consider that balance and that that balance not necessarily be imposed by people, environmentalists perhaps, in the United States.

I think that there's one other thing that we need to be aware of as it relates to United States policy, and that is that next year, when the Congress considers the budget, there's a cap on spending for some of these malaria programs.

And that might limit just how much can be spent overseas to combat malaria. So there's been - Bush has gotten kind of a break in all of the criticism as it relates to Iraq by getting kudos as it relates to malaria. But the effectiveness of that program could be limited if the Congress is not able to go beyond the current cap on spending.

CHIDEYA: We'll keep an eye on that and move on to another issue that is very important on the continent of Africa - the Sudan and abuse charges. The new United Nations Human Rights Council is backing a mission to investigate accusations that abuse in Darfur is getting worse.

Now human rights advocates say this is a timid first step in confronting atrocities. Aid officials say more than 200,000 people have been killed, many, many more displaced since the ethnic conflicts turned into a war nearly four years ago.

Prof. Berry, is this a step in the right direction and does it go far enough?

Prof. BERRY: It is a tepid response, but it is in fact a response. And to date, we've had practically no useful responses. And I also think that the United Nations Human Rights Council needs to do something on Darfur.

They do things on other issues and they also have been highly controversial because of some of the stuff that they have done. But I think it's high time, and I was glad that Kofi Annan challenged them to do something. And so now they are going to send these five qualified team members with their special Sudan investigator from the United Nations to actually go there on the ground and come back and have something to say and try to highlight the issues.

So I think it's a step in the right direction. And even if it's tepid, at least it's something.

CHIDEYA: Joe?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, it's interesting that the outgoing secretary-general, he gave a speech, not the speech that got so much attention a couple of days ago, his last speech, but his last speech on human rights was last Friday and he talked about the, quote, “shameful passivity of most governments,” close quote, when it comes to the issue of Darfur. And of course President Bush was out in front of this in terms of calling the situation there a genocide, but he's also been under a lot of pressure since then to take that beyond the rhetoric into greater action.

I think it's also worth noting that the former secretary-general also was critical of African governments, and in that speech he said that too often they mischaracterize the U.N. human rights agenda as, quote, “a conspiracy by imperialist powers to take the hard-won on national sovereignty of formerly colonized people.” So we urge them to kind of reject that mindset and to do - and to step up in the fight against genocide, particularly in Sudan, and he mentioned, at least indirectly, China and certain Islamic governments who back Sudan.

CHIDEYA: Before we get to Bob's response, I just want to make sure everyone is on the same page with us.

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

We are talking on our Roundtable with Joe Davidson from The Washington Post; Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania; and Bob Meadows, writer with People magazine.

Bob, the African Union forces are very understaffed and don't have enough equipment, and so is it just going to have to come down to the U.N. really stepping up its game? I mean this is a first step; Professor Berry says is a timid first step. What do you think?

Mr. MEADOWS: Well, the Sudanese government has continuously resisted any U.N. efforts to come in with a military force - heads will roll, I believe may have been a statement, or something to that effect, from the leader over there.

So the U.N. does have to step up. But unless Sudan is going to actually get on with the program, then the effort may actually fall short because I don't think anybody wants another invasion of that sort. But I also don't think there's a lot of incentive for the Sudanese government to really step up to the plate on this because the country is thriving economically at this point.

They have all this oil money that's been pouring in. They're one of the major suppliers to China for oil. So China is never going to vote for sanctions. Saudi Arabia is pouring money into the country. They're prospering right now, and as long as that continues, why should they follow anybody's advice except their own counsel.

CHIDEYA: Let's move along to a topic right here in the United States. A 25-year-old desegregation case against Alabama has finally been decided. This week, a federal judge approved the agreements that settled the case, ruled that segregation in Alabama's higher education system is no longer an issue.

Now this case has generated $210 million in state funds for the desegregation effort, and most of that is going to historically black colleges like Alabama A&M and Alabama State University. Mary Frances Berry, what are the pros and cons of this 25-year-old effort ending?

Prof. BERRY: Well, there really are pros and cons. All of the school desegregation litigation in higher education in the South started out as a way to try to get the schools, black and white, to integrate, and that there would be black professors and faculty members and things at the white schools and more black students, and that they would all be integrated and sing together and everything would be happy. And that this would be a way to take care of deficiencies.

As it went on, it became a litigation that was directed at just trying to improve the black college campuses - which were of course set up under separate but equal and always under-funded - in a way that they would become attractive to other students, that was the argument, and then they would become desegregated by other students becoming attracted. Then it became, in this next phase, blacks who are alums of those institutions and who go to those institutions who simply want their institution to have more resources, to have more of what it needs.

So we're at a point where the black college, and this is happening in other states, have gotten more money for the things that they need, although they never have - are going to be able to make up for all the things they didn't get for years and years and years and years. But you still don't have desegregation because the predominantly white institutions, except for the football team and maybe the basketball team or whatever, are still largely segregated in terms of white people and the few black faculty, the few black administrators. And the black colleges are the same, although the black colleges are more integrated than the white ones are. They got more white faculty and people who are from foreign countries and the like.

So it's a good thing to get all this money for the black colleges, but it's not true that the desegregation has really taken place because it really hasn't.

Mr. DAVIDSON: And it's interesting that on some of these historically black colleges - just to take your point a little bit further, Mary - you find a lot of white students too, certainly not just white faculty and staff. But on some of these black colleges they're practically - some of them there may be as many as 40 percent and maybe they've even tipped over to 51 percent in terms of white students.

And so when you look at that, and then you look at the white colleges, and you see still the struggle as certainly as it relates around affirmative action. We've seen these major court cases that relates to affirmative action on predominantly white colleges and the faculty, the staff, you know, you sometimes have to sit back and wonder what - you know, is this the way it was supposed to play out.

Prof. BERRY: No.

CHIDEYA: And Bob, you know, one other factor in this is that Alabama's property taxes, one of the lowest in the country, and arguably it affects the ability to get financial aid for college. So black folks, no matter whether they go to a predominantly white school or predominantly black school, are going to have to face the challenge of a growing student loan crisis, which we talked about earlier on the show this week. Is this going to affect that?

Mr. MEADOWS: Well, it - you mean the case ending? Is it going to affect that?

CHIDEYA: Yeah. I mean is the case ending and…

Mr. MEADOWS: Well, I know that of the $210 million, much of it - a lot of it is supposed to go towards scholarships, toward endowments. Perhaps that can offset this property tax and the inability of them to get other types of aid. So you hope that - and obviously scholarships and endowments are much better because you don't have to pay those back at the end, which I'm sure many college students will be clamoring to get something like that. So perhaps it can have that - a positive effect in that way.

Prof. BERRY: One of the dirty little secrets, Farai, is that in some of these states, including Alabama, what Joe said about the white students on the black college campuses, there are a lot of black students who aren't able to get in school anywhere. They don't have the financial aid money to pay to go anywhere, still. And because of the standards that have been changed in those states, some of them can't even get in the predominantly black college anymore.

So their standards are changing, not really desegregation at the white school, white students going to the black campuses where the programs have improved and they think that they can get - for example, I go speak at commencement and all the graduates who are getting degrees in physical therapy or…

CHIDEYA: I'm going to have to…

Prof. BERRY: …anything where you can get a job are white.

CHIDEYA: All right. Mary Frances Berry - we're going to have leave it there -professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. Joe Davidson of The Washington Post. Bob Meadows of People magazine. Thank you all so much and have a great weekend.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Thank you.

Mr. MEADOWS: You too.

CHIDEYA: Next on NEWS & NOTES, we talk politics with NPR's Juan Williams and his guests on Political Corner. And we get really low with the sound of the bass in our latest visit to the lower frequencies.

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