A review of The Wisdom of Whores- Bureaucrats, brothels and the business of AIDS by Elizabeth Pisani

A personal, blunt, and insightful look into the fight against AIDS in Asia, Wisdom of Whores provides some very hardhitting and eye-opening details and educated opinions. For instance, that AIDS programs are for the most part very ineffective and useless because they mostly ignore the people who are most at risk – drug users and sex workers, instead being targeted at the general population. This is because there is a distinct lack of sympathy by the general public and significant reluctance from politicians and bureaucrats to provide help for those people. Also, AIDS is fuelled by certain kinds of risky sexual relationship behavior, which is more prevalent in some societies than others. The reluctance to acknowledge and deal with this awkward, politically-incorrect fact is seen in the inordinate and flawed focus by governments and organizations on poverty and development as the causes of AIDS.

It’s not surprising that the author doesn’t pull any punches given her background. Pisani is an experienced journalist who obtained a doctorate in infectious disease epidemiology and worked for international organizations, eventually becoming an AIDS consultant at an NGO in SE Asia’s Indonesia. Far from being an academic holed up in offices and familiar only with reports and conferences, Pisani got involved in a lot of on-the-ground experiences including visiting putrid swamp slums and attending gay parties. The most notable is her encounters and professional and social relationships with Indonesia “waria”- transexual male prostitutes.

Besides her criticisms of how AIDS has been addressed, Pisani also gives detailed descriptions of research and policymaking, especially the struggles with conducting them and working with governments. The United Nations also comes in for a lot of criticism.

This is an entertaining read that really makes you think harder on the efforts against the AIDS epidemic and why despite the gigantic sums of money expended – US$4.2 billion budgeted by the U.S. for developing countries in 2008, more than double that of 2006, as Pisani says- it still seems to be growing.