Wealthy Nations Fail to Fund Clean Water, Health

By J.R. Pegg

May 30, 2003 (ENS) - The world's leaders need to wake up to a few stark realities if the international community is going to tackle the global health and environmental issues that plague humanity's poor - this message rang loud and clear at the 30th annual conference of the Global Health Council, expressed with passion and anger by many attendees and speakers.

"The reason poor people die by the millions is not too mysterious," said Jeffrey Sachs, the director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University. "They do not have the money to stay alive."

Sachs, an economist by trade, blasted the industrialized world - in particular the United States - for half hearted efforts and a lack of commitment to take on the issues of poverty.

"We continue to make very wrong choices as a society but we continue to believe that we are making the right choices because that is what our leaders tell us," Sachs told attendee's at today's closing session.

Sachs, who is United Nations Secretary Kofi Annan's special advisor on the Millennium Development Goals, says the cost of breaking the world's cycle of poverty is a drop in the bucket.

He estimates a sum of some $100 billion a year would make a serious dent in a range of poverty issues, from health, education, clean water and sanitation, roads and power, as well as protection for areas of critical biodiversity. boy

Three million people die each year from malaria, even though humanity knows how to combat the disease. (Photo by Giancomo Pirozzi courtesy United Nations Children's Fund )
"That may sound like a lot, but that is nothing," he said. "It is what we give away in a tax cut in the snap of a finger."

This represents a wealth transfer of only $100 billion a year from the world's rich to its poorest, Sachs explained, and it is wrong to characterize this sum as charity - it is an investment in the future.

Yet the industrialized world seems less inclined recently to fund international development, with the United States at leading this trend. Despite committing to international accords that call on nations to spend 70 cents of every $100 of gross domestic product (GDP) on international development aid, the United States spends about 12 cents per $100 of GDP.

"We are reckless in our disregard, and we are afraid to look at the truth," Sachs said. "We are afraid to see how easily we could alleviate suffering and how much good we could do for the world and for ourselves."

Sachs cited a U.S. Agency for International Development project to provide access to clean water and sanitation to individuals in West Africa. This public-private partnership, much touted by the Bush administration, pledges $41 million over seven years. This total is so inadequate, Sachs said, that it should be embarrassing.

Only $4.4 million of the $41 million project comes from the U.S. government and this exposes the shortcomings of the industrialized world's commitment, Sachs said.

"I am all for the private sector, but the private sector is not going to provide water in West Africa," he said. "The private sector wants to make money, but you can not make money off of dying poor people. These public-private partnerships are a myth until the public sector puts in the money."

It is not that the world's rich do not have the money - or the ability - to induce dramatic change, Sachs said.

The recent outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) demonstrates how rapidly and effectively the international community can respond to an infectious disease, Sachs said, but this also underscores the negligence of the world to take on other challenges that do not directly threaten the wealthy nations of the world.

Take malaria, he explained, a disease that humanity knows how to combat but still kills some three million individuals every year.

"Is the world swinging into action for the 500 million clinical cases of malaria this year? I think the answer is clearly no," Sachs said.

"Why are we trying to sell bed nets to impoverished people when they cannot afford them? We have got to start making real choices but we have to start telling the truth about the choices we are making."

The rich nations of the world "agonize of public private partnerships guaranteed not to do anything," Sachs said, as poverty causes far reaching human suffering and mass environmental degradation. Nabarro

Economist Jeffrey Sachs says the industrialized world could easily afford to make serious inroads into alleviating global poverty. (Photo courtesy World Health Organization)
Efforts to improve global health must pay attention to the particular needs of the poorer people in our world, added David Nabarro, executive director of the World Health Organization's Sustainable Development and Healthy Environments program.

"Poor people have many fewer opportunities," Nabarro told attendees via video link from Geneva, Switzerland. "That means if they make a wrong choice, the consequences can be severe and illness can have catastrophic consequences."

Nabarro urged policymakers to recognize that "good health is prerequisite for human security and sustainable development."

When considering the investments needed to improve global health and alleviate poverty, leaders must consider the "dangers of not responding," he said.

"Health is a key bridge to peace," Nabarro said.

Both Nabarro and Sachs criticized in particular the lack of funding for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The Bush administration has touted its pledge of $15 billion to fight AIDS, but only $200 million is earmarked for the Global Fund, which could run out of money by next year unless more funds are contributed.

"We may have met our own pledge, but we did not meet the need," Sachs said. "We are not doing our part, Europe is not doing its part and that means the Global Fund cannot do its part."

The G8 nations are gathering this weekend in France to discuss economic and development issues, and many at this week's conference will be closely watching to see if the rhetoric matches the reality.

There is a "tendency for the international community to set things up, not give them enough money and then blame them for failure," Nabarro added. "It is disgusting that countries should be encouraged to pursue a new path and then find there is not enough money."