Gordon Brown and Hilary Benn: The scandal of poverty and disease

It can devastate an economy because, unlike other diseases, it strikes at the workforce
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The Independent Online

Today, developing countries all over the world are benefitting from increasing trade and globalisation. Last year Africa enjoyed its third consecutive year of growth over 5 per cent. The potential and promise of developing countries like those of the African continent is enormous. It is an inspirational spirit which must be nurtured to build for a brighter future. But there are many challenges ahead, none more so than the impact of Aids.

Aids not only devastates families, it can devastate an entire economy because, unlike other diseases, Aids strikes at the productive heart of the economy: its workforce. When workers become ill their productivity falls and they struggle to provide for their families. Communities can pull together to help each other, but when large numbers are afflicted, no one group can manage alone. The success of the whole economy will be damaged, exacerbating an already desperate situation for many.

Managing these pressures would be difficult for any of us. In Africa the effects are more acute, and undermine progress towards long-term development and the achievement of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The UN has estimated that economic growth could fall by 1 per cent for every 10 per cent of HIV prevalence. In a country like Swaziland, with a 33 per cent Aids prevalence, this is the difference between one generation and the next still living in poverty.

The scandal of poverty and Aids is something the whole global community needs to work to resolve. The UK made it a priority under our G8 and EU presidencies last year. And in September 2006, the UN agreed that we must provide universal access to Aids prevention, treatment, care and support by 2010.

Developing countries are now preparing national plans to try to achieve universal access by 2010. The UK has argued that no credible, sustainable country plan should go unfunded, and has already pledged £1bn to Aids programmes in the three years to 2008. In Singapore, just a few months ago, we achieved debt write-off for 20 countries, and aid has already increased by around 25 per cent to more than $100bn. This is making a difference. Countries like Zambia and Malawi have been able to abolish rural healthcare fees.

Over the last three years there has been a tenfold increase in the numbers of people on anti-retroviral treatment in sub-Saharan Africa - to over one million men and women. But while much has been achieved, there is more we can, and must, do to avert the potentially awful consequences of the Aids pandemic. First, to tackle Aids, countries need strong health services. There is still no cure for Aids, but in the richest countries it has become a treatable disease. We must achieve the same in the poorest countries. That means long-term, predictable and stable financing for health. Without this we cannot train the nurses, abolish the fees and build the basic services needed to treat Aids.

Second, we must improve access to affordable medicines for the poorest. We must encourage innovation, drive down prices through partnerships and competition, and make distribution and use of medicines more efficient. The UK, with other countries, has pioneered Unitaid, a new international facility that will use bulk purchasing power to bring down the prices of some of the most expensive drugs - including those used to treat Aids - for the poorest countries.

But improving access to medicines will continue to require a global effort involving governments, the pharmaceutical industry and civil society. At the same time, we must strengthen long-term research into a preventative vaccine. That is why the UK supports the International Aids Vaccine Initiative, a public-private partnership that has already enabled the development of several candidate vaccines.

Third, strong education provides a social "vaccine". Keeping girls in school is one of the most effective ways of preventing Aids. In Zambia, for example, infection rates among educated women have declined while remaining the same among those lacking a basic education. We must also improve sex education, promote safe sex and improve access to funding for proper protection against sexual infection. Although Aids funding has increased dramatically in recent years, it is a fact that funding for condoms has not kept pace with the need.

As with health, we must provide long-term, predictable financing for education. That is why Britain supports a new "education for all" initiative - to finance 10-year plans for education in the poorest countries.

Finally, we must tackle the stigma that surrounds Aids. People, especially women, living with HIV continue to be rejected by their families and communities and denied the right to healthcare, work, education and freedom of movement.

Looking to the future, we do not pretend to know what the full impact of the Aids pandemic will be, nor that averting these impacts will be easy. But our resolve will not be diminished. As an international community, we must not fail in these challenges.

Gordon Brown is Chancellor of the Exchequer. Hilary Benn is Secretary of State for International Development.