From the TUC

Overseas aid: can drugs cure poverty?

18 Jun 2011, by in International, Society & Welfare

Last Monday, Save the Children hyperbolically proclaimed that there were ‘just 4 hours to save 4 million lives’ – the length of the conference held that day in London to replenish the funds of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI). In the end, £2.6bn was pledged, with the largest sums – over half – coming from DFID (£0.8bn) and Bill Gates (£0.6bn). The extra funds are welcome news, and dominated the headlines that day, despite the dissent of anti-aid rightwingers and more cautious voices from the development community and the left.

Those latter criticisms expose the fault lines in the current debate within the pro-aid community – basically between sticking plaster charity and long term social justice. The TUC approves of sticking plasters – but we would prefer to see social justice make sticking plasters just a minor element of the solution rather than the most we can provide.

First, lest anyone accuse us of curmudgeonly bad grace, here’s what TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said after the GAVI conference ended:

“No child needs to die of preventable diseases. Industrialised nations like the UK should do more to help eradicate killer diseases.  The TUC welcomes the pledge made today by the Prime Minister at the GAVI Summit. We hope that other rich nations will follow the UK example and increase funding for global vaccination and immunisation programmes.”

But we share the criticisms of those who challenge the effectiveness of GAVI’s model, which pays high prices for drugs and is conflicted by the involvement of big pharma. These are not lone voices in the wilderness – such voices this week have included Oxfam, Medecin Sans Frontieres, War on Want and WDM, as well as the GMB. And we are concerned at the shortfall in funding for action on HIV/AIDS, which goes further than treatment and also addresses prevention and support for people living with HIV and AIDS.

And that’s the real concern that the TUC has about the current DFID focus on specific and measurable – but short-term and unsystemic – services. We would prefer to see the money spent on – admittedly vital – immunisation matched by assistance with economic growth and job creation, on decent work and human rights, and on quality public services that deliver education, health and water and sanitation. Because these are the investments that will make it possible for developing countries not to need aid for immunisation programmes any more.

One of the major announcements at the GAVI replenishment was that the costs of the rotavirus vaccine against diarrhoea would be cut substantially. But it wasn’t rotavirus that eradicated that major killer of children in the UK or other developed countries: it was public health and sewerage systems.