I don’t even understand why this is supposed to seem like a waste of money by mattsteinglass
May 24, 2009, 10:40 pm
Filed under: China, Conservatism, Development, Health

While we’re talking spam, this post from something called Turner Radio Network (I assume that’s as in “Turner Diaries”) somehow made it to the front page of Google News a few minutes ago. Entitled “Should we overthrow the gov’t on July 4?”, the post notes that Barack Obama noted in a press conference that the US is “out of money” (in the sense that the Federal Government is running a deficit — stop the presses!). It goes on to note a few instances of “absurd” Federal expenditures that are supposed to infuriate the reader:

Despite this admission, that very same federal government is presently throwing away literally millions as follows:

* The National Institutes of Health are paying researchers to cruise six bars in Buenos Aires to find out why gay men engage in risky sexual behavior while drunk — and just what can be done about it. (Source)

* The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA), a part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), will pay $2.6 million in U.S. tax dollars to train Chinese prostitutes to drink responsibly on the job. (Source)

* The National Institutes of Health is conducting a two-year study costing $178,000 in which 60 Thai sex workers are being interviewed to understand what makes them so succeptible to HIV, including economic pressures and their heavy use of drugs (Source)

So here’s the thing. Even before checking the “source” links on these items, I failed to see what was unreasonable about any of the above expenditures. Full disclosure: my wife is an HIV/AIDS researcher here in Vietnam. So I’m not exactly your average not-particularly-informed voter when it comes to HIV/AIDS research. But even on their faces, as tendentiously described in a conservative blog post trying to ridicule them, each of these studies seemed perfectly logical to me. The price tag on the China study does seem rather high, but in principle, if you want to find out whether Chinese prostitutes are being led to practice unsafe sex because of alcohol use, and whether changes in alcohol rules might enable them to better insist that customers use condoms, how would you propose to do that except by studying it? If you’re spending a lot of money on programs to stop the spread of HIV in China, but those programs are being hampered in some locations, wouldn’t it be wise to spend some money studying the factors that are hampering the program, rather than continuing to throw money at it with no understanding of why it’s going wrong?

And then one heads to the article describing the research program:

Dr. Xiaoming Li, the researcher conducting the program, is director of the Prevention Research Center at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit. 
The grant, made last November, refers to prostitutes as “female sex workers”–or FSW–and their handlers as “gatekeepers.” 

“Previous studies in Asia and Africa and our own data from FSWs [female sex workers] in China suggest that the social norms and institutional policy within commercial sex venues as well as agents overseeing the FSWs (i.e., the ‘gatekeepers’, defined as persons who manage the establishments and/or sex workers) are potentially of great importance in influencing alcohol use and sexual behavior among establishment-based FSWs,” says the NIH grant abstract submitted by Dr. Li.

“Therefore, in this application, we propose to develop, implement, and evaluate a venue-based alcohol use and HIV risk reduction intervention focusing on both environmental and individual factors among venue-based FSWs in China,” says the abstract.

The research will take place in the southern Chinese province of Guangxi.

Guangxi is ranked third in HIV rate among China’s provinces–and is a place where the sex business is pervasive, Li said.

This is all completely solid stuff. Owners and managers of brothels have proven extremely useful partners in preventing the spread of HIV in many countries, including Thailand and Vietnam.  They have no interest in seeing their brothels spread HIV, killing their workers and clients. Informal instructions to Communist Party members to practice safe sex when visiting brothels, and Party encouragement of safe sex practice at brothels, has led to high rates of condom usage in Vietnamese brothels. If, for example, it is found that allowing prostitutes to drink heavily (which may culturally be part of the commercial sex environment in China and elsewhere, where “hostesses” and “karaoke girls” are expected to drink with guests before providing sexual services) is leading to breakdowns in safe-sex policies, brothel managers may set new rules for customers, exempting sex workers from pressure to drink; sober sex workers will no doubt be better at stopping the spread of HIV.

So this seems in principle like a worthy study. But what really struck me is that it didn’t even seem like a boondoggle at first glance. Looking back at a few recent examples — bear DNA research, volcano monitoring — it just seems like conservatives are having a hard time these days finding government programs that actually are, or even sound, ridiculous. This seems strange — there are certainly plenty of government programs wasting money out there. But they are mainly wasting money in complicated or business-friendly ways that conservatives will not find rhetorically useful.


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