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Cutting development spending now would be self-defeating

In a globalised and interdependent economy, we all stand to benefit from development spending.

Former Labour cabinet minister Paul Boateng in Tanzania.
Former Labour cabinet minister Paul Boateng chairs a meeting of global health leaders in Tanzania.

While the Chancellor was delivering his Autumn Statement to a packed House of Commons, I was visiting immunisation services at a rural health centre on the foothills of Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. I saw for myself how UK development funding was being spent on the ground. Rural women had travelled with their children for miles to this remote clinic so that they might, through a simple vaccination, avoid life-threatening disease. The Autumn Statement provided an opportunity for some to ask the Chancellor to stop ring-fencing funding for international development. “Charity”, they say, “begins at home”. This has an obvious resonance in the current economic climate. However, it is a message which fails to recognise the value of development funding which goes beyond a simple handout and makes it an investment not just in the future of the otherwise impoverished but in our own future too.

The UK has a proud record in international development and can rightly claim to be a global leader in promoting effective, cost-efficient and innovative support to countries in the developing world. From the Labour governments of Blair and Brown, to the current coalition, international development is one of the areas of policy that we can be most proud. UK funding is helping to save lives, eradicate poverty and build healthy, economically vibrant communities across the world. We all stand to benefit from that in this globalised and interdependent economy.

I am here in Tanzania to participate in a global health partners’ forum being hosted by the Tanzanian Ministry of Health in partnership with the GAVI Alliance. The purpose of my visit is to meet parliamentarians from around the world, from both donor and recipient countries, and to foster greater political will for the introduction and sustainability of vaccine programmes to prevent pneumonia, diarrhoea, cervical cancer and rubella. Whilst here, we will take part in a series of debates and workshops and will meet with global health leaders, technical experts and civil society organisations. We are visiting urban and rural immunisation centres and clinics and meeting the very people that the UK taxpayer is helping to support through the availability of vaccines. Their gratitude for the UK’s contribution to GAVI for this life-saving initiative is humbling.

The theme of the conference is to explore ways to accelerate results, innovation, sustainability and equity in the field of immunisation. Taken in isolation, pneumonia - one of the leading killers of children under five in the developing world - is responsible for more than 1.3 million child deaths every year. By utilising a unique market shaping model, the GAVI Alliance aims to help avert 500,000 deaths by 2015 and 1.5 million future deaths by 2020. The story is much the same with diarrhoea, where effective vaccines are being used to tackle the leading cause of diarrhoeal disease. Diarrhoea is estimated to kill around 450,000 children every year - that’s nearly 1,200 children every day. These deaths are preventable and UK support is playing a vital role in making that happen.       

GAVI ought to need no introduction, nevertheless, it remains the too often unsung heroine of unified global action on development. Earlier this year I was back in Ghana, the country of my childhood, to witness the dual roll-out of pneumococcal and rotavirus vaccines against pneumonia and diarrhoea.  GAVI was once again a welcome partner to local action on immunisation.

GAVI is a truly unique organisation. It brings together civil society, vaccine manufacturers, Governments and the private sector to use innovative finance mechanisms to secure significant development outcomes. One of these mechanisms is the International Finance Facility for Immunisation (IFFIm), which I worked on with Gordon Brown during my time at the Treasury. GAVI has since become a byword for the successful and cost-effective delivery of international development, to the extent that David Cameron last year committed a further £814 million to support GAVI’s work.   

For those who continue to doubt the benefits of a sustained, long-term commitment to development funding, I would suggest they look at Tanzania to see the difference that UK funding is making to individual lives and communities. This difference is being repeated across the world. The cost of preventable disease, not just in human terms but in its destructive impact on overall health costs and wasted economic potential, is glaringly obvious in a country where women will walk miles with their babies on their backs to ensure a healthy life for a child. Our hard-earned taxpayers' money helps guarantee a healthy future for more children the world over. As a result, our world becomes a better place and the lives of those who share it with us become safer and more prosperous. That is surely worth a line in the Autumn Statement.