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What can I do to help fight the AIDS pandemic in Africa?

The most valuable thing that you can do to fight the AIDS pandemic in Africa is talk about it. There has, in the past year or two, been a swell of interest at a grassroots level, and international stars and philanthropists have taken up the cause. But the crisis continues to fail to draw the political and financial response it merits because too few people outside Africa yet understand or care about the issue.

Should I go to Africa?

That's another commendable idea, but not always the best solution. Volunteering in Africa can be a fantastic experience for volunteers, but often a less than terrific one for the project or community they join.However well intentioned, volunteers from abroad can be a drain on the communities they go to help: if they don't speak the language, they cannot assist with education or AIDS awareness, and usually they don't have the particular skills that are needed (for the perfectly good reason that they rarely need such skills in their home countries: when was the last time you dug a borehole?) If you are a physician, nurse, midwife or pharmacist with expertise in AIDS care, then many African governments may be glad to have you. But otherwise, likely the most useful thing you can do is education and advocacy work at home.

Should I send money?

In a word, yes. There are a great many organizations, both international and local, doing excellent work to fight AIDS and they are fully or partly reliant on donations from the public to fund that work.

I want to send books – or toys – or medical supplies – to Africa

That's a lovely idea, but impractical. The shipping costs and customs duties on anything sent from North America or Europe typically far exceed the value of the actual goods. A Tanzanian AIDS group, for example, can't afford to pay the import tax on a box of second-hand clothes. And quite often, the items people propose to send are in any case available right there in Tanzania or Lesotho—the issue is that people can't afford to buy them. Instead of stuff, send money, and let the group buy the school books or latex gloves themselves. They can make the decisions about what they most urgently need, and the local economy gets a boost, too.