Three months ago, I attended a briefing at the World Health Organization by the polio virus’ number one nemesis: Dr. Bruce Aylward. There was great news to report: polio has been on a major retreat since the launch of eradication efforts two decades ago. It is endemic in only three countries on the planet. Last year, there were barely 1,000 confirmed cases around the world–a 98% drop since the initiative launched in 1988.
Still, Dr. Aylward’s presentation was somewhat downbeat. The global financial crisis has caused donors to retreat in recent years to the point where the Global Polio Eradication Initiative faces its largest funding shortfall ever. They are short $945 million this year, forcing them to scale back in 24 at-risk countries even as total eradication is so tantalizingly close. “There is no technological or biological barrier to eradicating polio,” said Aylward. “The challenge is mustering the money and political will to do so.”
So how can we get out of the red, and into the black on polio eradication? Enter this man:
Neil Young is headlining a concert on the margins of the UN General Assembly in New York this September dubbed The Global Festival. The Black Keys, Foo Fighters, Band of Horses and K’naan are on the bill.
This is not your everyday benefit concert. Tickets are not even being sold. They have to be earned. Would-be concert goers must register a profile on GlobalCitizen.org and take actions, like signing a petition or writing to a member of congress, to earn a ticket. The suggested actions are from a variety of reputable organizations, including: The Earth Institute, World Food Program USA, Pencils of Promise, The Global Partnership for Education, Half the Sky, Rotary International, World Vision, Malaria No More, Rainforest Foundation and U.S. Fund for UNICEF.
The Global Poverty Project is the genius behind this event. They stress that they are not trying to raise money from donors, but “motivate a generation to take 100,000 actions by September and take a stand against poverty.” The point is, this is not a charity concert. This is a political event.
That’s an important distinction. Global philanthropies like the Gates Foundation, Rotary and others have played a crucially important role in helping reach many of the Millennium Development Goals, but in the end there is a limit to what philanthropy can achieve. What we really need are political and financial commitments of governments in the developing and developed world. The Gates Foundation can help, but ultimately it will be public policy that ends extreme global poverty.
Take AIDS, for example. Last month in Washington, D.C. tens of thousands of activists and policy makers coalesced for the 2012 International AIDS Conference. The theme of the conference was “Toward and AIDS-Free Generation,” which is actually a perfectly achievable goal. AIDS is on the retreat globally, and we now have the technological capacity to treat and prevent the spread of HIV. What we don’t have is the money to implement all the prevention and treatment techniques that are required to reach this goal. In all, we will need about $22 to $24 billion annually to fully respond to the AIDS crisis through 2015. We currently have about half that.
$22 billion is a great deal of money. But in governmental budgetary terms, it is a drop in the bucket. It amounts to about 3% of the US Department of Defense Budget for last year and just a little more than 1% of the total US budget. If you spread that amount across the wealthiest countries in the world, the burden is lowered even further.
Ending extreme global poverty and eliminating diseases like AIDS and Polio is not some pie-in-the-sky dream but an achievable reality. All is required is some political action and public policy shifts. To that end, creating and nurturing a generation of citizens engaged on these issues can make a real difference.