Aid is a good investment, but countries are giving up on it

The world faces many crises requiring the kind of financial firepower that only leading nations can provide

A health worker administers a polio vaccine to an Afghan refugee child in Karachi, Pakistan on November 27. There are concerns that funding for international vaccination programmes is falling behind. AP
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Money isn’t everything, they say, and in an important sense this is true. But when it comes to solving some of the biggest problems that continue to plague our species – poverty, disease, environmental degradation and resource-scarcity, to name a few – cash goes a long way.

It seems remarkable that so many life-and-death issues – for example, vaccine research and distribution – are still not getting the funding they require. This week, just seven months after the World Health Organisation declared the end of Covid-19 as a global health emergency, philanthropist and technology leader Bill Gates told The National that one of the world’s largest multilateral investors in global health – the Global Fund – has raised less money this year than in any year before. The fact that in this day and age people still die from preventable diseases due to a lack of funding at a time of high liquidity should not be acceptable.

Solutions to other critical problems, such as climate change, can also get bogged down when it comes to who is going to pay for what. Cop28 in Dubai scored an early success when participating nations agreed on the summit’s first day to put into operation a loss and damage fund to help vulnerable nations cope with climate disasters. But some countries with significant resources – and share of responsibility – have been rather parsimonious. A $17.5-million loss and damage pledge by the US seemed particularly paltry, considering the kind of financial firepower that the world’s largest economy can bring to bear.

Penny-pinching is an increasingly common problem in the international aid world. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, just one climate-related disaster – the devastating 2022 floods in Pakistan – was thought to have cost that country more than $30 billion, but an international donor conference held in January managed to raise just $10 billion.

Even more acute problems, such as the continuing war in Gaza, have been exacerbated by a lack of financial commitment. On November 30, the UN Relief and Works Agency that supports Palestinian refugees said its programme budget now stands at a deficit of $80 million. In war-torn Syria, the World Food Programme – which runs entirely on cash or in-kind donations – has already said that it was forced to “progressively reduce the size of its food rations due to lack of sufficient funding and supply chain disruptions”.

The chief international yardstick with which to measure progress on these issues is the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, which set targets on poverty alleviation, education, gender equality and other critical issues, most of them to be met by 2030. But with only six years to go, huge funding gaps remain across much of the board.

It is not the case that the money to help out isn’t there. A certain short-sightedness, rather, means that many rich countries find it much easier to prioritise spending on things like national defence over alleviating global crises, despite both being critical to diminishing threats from abroad. Last year, global military spending for the first time topped $2 trillion – more than half of it from Nato members – about 10 times the amount development agencies spent on foreign aid.

Physicists Matteo Smerlak and Carlo Rovelli have pointed out that if countries agreed to a global 2 per cent annual reduction in military expenditure – rather than the current average of a 2.6 per cent increase – the world could receive a “peace dividend” of about $1 trillion within five years. That amount of money would make all the difference in alleviating global poverty or tackling climate change, which in turn would significantly weaken the drivers for armed conflict.

As another physicist, Albert Einstein, once noted, one “cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war”. The former is surely the better investment.

Published: December 06, 2023, 3:00 AM