Poverty and Third World health

A promotional poster for the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. Photo: UN Millennium Development Goals/Facebook

When the United Nations Millennium Development Goals Summit took place in September, leaders from rich countries, as well as aid and research organisatons, met with Third World nations and “recommitted” to eight anti-poverty goals.

The goals were set in the Millennium Declaration in 2000, to be met by 2015. “Donor” countries pledged financial and technical aid to halve extreme poverty and reduce hunger, disease and illiteracy across the global South.

Three goals were specifically about health — reducing child mortality, improving maternal health and combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases.

Yet community healthcare organisations such as the Treatment Action Campaign group in South Africa, criticised the summit as another example of “all words, little action”.

At the summit, leaders of rich nations commended their own shallow efforts on one hand, and blamed failures on the financial crisis or the “natural environment” on the other.

This lack of commitment was clearest on October 5, when the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria said it needed to raise US$20 billion to continue programs in the global South that have saved up to 4.9 million lives.

Despite the urgent need to address the spiralling crisis of HIV/AIDS, the Global Fund received only US$12 billion in pledges at a meeting of world leaders over October 4-5.

The shortfall will deprive at least 3.1 million people of access to life-saving anti-retroviral treatment. Hundreds of programs will lose funding and millions of lives will be unnecessarily lost.

Access to public health and preventative medicine is vital to people’s quality of life and living standards. Poor health, prevalence of treatable diseases and high child mortality are inextricably linked to poverty.

Despite the pledges, many of the poorest countries will not and cannot come close to meeting the UN’s goals.

The analysis of individual nations carried out at the summit showed key health indicators such as infant mortality and life expectancy were improving for some, but dramatically worsening for others.

In fact, statistics from UN agencies and the World Health Organisation (WHO) show the number of people in the world with little or no access to clean water, sanitation, essential medicines, health care, housing and nutrition is growing.

But many of the health crises in the Third World are preventable — WHO said one third of all child deaths were caused in part by lack of food.

In 2007, more than a quarter (27-28%) of children in poor countries — mostly in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa — were underweight or stunted. The target of halving the proportion of underweight children fell short by 30 million.

The 2006 UN Human Development Report said almost half of all people in poor countries suffer health problems caused by insufficient water and sanitation. Poor access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation affects half of humanity.

It said 1.8 million children die each year as a result of diarrhoea.

Infectious diseases, such as malaria and tuberculosis, all but eradicated in most developed countries, continue to spread in the Third World. Ninety percent of malaria deaths are in Africa. African children make up more than 80% of malaria victims worldwide.

WHO said 5-10% of the US population test positive for tuberculosis each year. In many Asian and African countries, the figure is as high as 80%.

In 2007, Africa had 475 cases of tuberculosis for every 1000 people. In the US, there were 38 cases for every 1000 people. While 48 in every 1000 people died from tuberculosis and HIV illness in Africa, in the US less than one person died per 1000.

The fact that Third World governments weren’t meeting the Millennium Development Goals was blamed on the global financial crisis and rising climate change disasters.

The Red Cross director for Africa, Alasan Senghore, said more cases of drought and floods were occurring in poor African nations, AAP reported on November 10. He said “the devastation is severe” and would reduce the ability for governments to improve on the millennium goals.

The effects of climate change disproportionately harm the poorest people in the world, and will continue to grow worse. But this shows the need for significantly more global assistance, not just concerned posturing.

The 2005 G8/G20 summit agreed that everyone would have access to HIV/AIDS treatment by 2010. But in the lead-up to the November 11-12 G20 summit in Seoul, the global financial crisis, which sucked US$4 trillion from the global economy, was the explanation and the excuse for the inequalities in global health that have grown wider than ever.

Jorge Valero, Venezuela’s ambassador to the UN, condemned rich countries for failing to take the millennium goals seriously over the past 10 years and instead continue the “exploitative casino economy” that creates more injustice, inequality and poverty.

In his September 21 address to the summit he said: “Market totalitarianism prevents the exercise of human rights and the right to development.

“In this context, there is no right to work or healthcare, only labour market adjustments, or private companies that provide health insurance. There is also no right to food, which depends on the international market that has turned food into objects of speculation through future transactions.”

The Third World’s problems stem largely from unserviceable debt as a result of “foreign aid” or loans from bodies such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

Poor nations are forced to put debt repayment above health, education or housing, and pay more back to the banks and corporations of rich nations than can be spent on aid programs for their people. Health care for the poor is a forfeit to the profit of the rich.

Other “conditions” of aid relief allow corporations and foreign markets to exploit natural resources and local workers, pollute land and water sources, and create conflict and hardship.

All this results in preventable suffering, mortality, famine and illness.

Venezuela, recognised as a leader in achieving the millennium goals, has rolled out nationwide health intervention programs with dramatic effect. Valero said: “Social investment has become a national strategy to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.

“Venezuela has regained full control of its natural resources. All basic services are considered basic human rights.

“State policies have become instruments for achieving the Millennium Development Goals and for the promotion of independent and autonomous development, without the tyranny of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.”

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