x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

UN village project provides model for ending poverty

Economist argues that the West can afford $32bn for Africa, after a pilot scheme proves to be a success in reducing poverty and increasing HIV awareness.

NAIROBI // When he speaks about ending poverty in Africa, Jeffrey Sachs is transformed from sounding like a dour economist to an impassioned champion of the underprivileged. Mr Sachs speaks candidly about subsidising every impoverished African for the bargain price of US$32 billion (Dh118bn). "The world can afford $32 billion," he said, shaking his finger. "Don't let anyone tell you that this is an outlandish number. You watch: Wall Street bankers will take home that much in bonuses this year. The surge in Afghanistan will cost that much."

Besides being an economist, author and special adviser to the United Nations secretary general, Mr Sachs is also a watchdog for the poor, goading western governments to honour their commitments to the developing world. In his Millennium Villages project, basic services and infrastructure are provided to a handful of heavily subsidised African villages in the world's poorest regions, an attempt to show that the UN's goal of ending poverty by 2015 is reachable.

Mr Sachs's latest crusade is ending mother-to-child transmission (MTCT) of HIV in Africa. The Millennium Villages organisation and the UN Aids initiative are working together to tackle this preventable way of spreading the disease. In 2008, nearly 400,000 infants in sub-Saharan Africa were infected with HIV from their mothers during pregnancy, delivery or breastfeeding. Without treatment, 30 per cent of babies born to HIV-infected mothers will acquire the disease.

More than 90 per cent of such cases occur in Africa. In the developed world, early detection, safe delivery practices and widespread antiretroviral drugs have almost eliminated this form of transmission. "Aids has become the leading cause of the death among infants and young children in much of sub-Saharan Africa," Michel Sidibe, the head of UNAids, said at a press conference in Nairobi. "We have seen that it is possible to virtually eliminate infant HIV infections in high-income countries. Now we must apply the knowledge and tools to create an Aids-free generation in Africa and the rest of the world."

In western Kenya, the Millennium Villages project has made Sauri into a model village for what development could look like if Africa received significant investment. Each resident of the village is subsidised by a donor investment of $110 annually. Quality of life in the Millennium Village is significantly higher than in the surrounding region. People have moved to Sauri to take advantage of the improved services.

There are six health clinics in Sauri and HIV testing among pregnant women has increased to 60 per cent from 10 per cent, drastically reducing the incidents of mother-to-child transmission, Mr Sachs said. "By 2015, there ought to be a decisive end of mother-to-child transmission of Aids," he said. "This is a crisis of life and death. We need a lot more acting from the rest of the rest of the world. Nobody's without responsibility in this."

The Millennium Villages use so-called telemedicine technology to improve health care. Health workers in the villages are given mobile phones and sent out to treat patients. After testing patients for various diseases, the workers send the results via text message to remote clinics and are told which treatment to provide. "It is a very wonderful system," Mr Sachs said. "It empowers providers in the community to get very powerful results."

After visiting the Sauri Millennium Village in western Kenya, Mr Sidibe said the project demonstrated that, by promoting community participation, there was a chance to increase the number of expectant mothers with access to prevention services. He said 38,000 cases of mother-to-child transmission were reported in Kenya annually and 16,000 of those could be averted if a full package of steps to prevent transmission was provided by 2015.

"The move towards universal prevention of mother-to-child HIV transmission requires translating scientific evidence into routine practice," Mr Sidibe said. "With a concerted effort, we can fully curb the mother-to-child transmission of HIV and bear witness as an HIV-free generation is born in Africa and the world." Aids prevention and improved health care are just two of the Millennium Development Goals that Mr Sachs's project is trying to accomplish. The others include ending poverty and hunger, achieving universal education, promoting gender equality and reducing child mortality.

Mr Sachs urged the industrialised world to make good on its funding pledges to realise the millennium goals. He said western countries have used the G8 summit to pledge money but have not followed through on their promises. "The industrialised world promised that any valid programme would be funded, but it's not," he said. "What's the point of having these meetings if they don't go anywhere?" mbrown@thenational.ae