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The Policy Ask with Michael Anderson: “We could learn from Portugal on drug laws”

The CEO of MedAccess on decriminalising drug use, big pharma's responsibility to developing countries, and working on a fishing boat.

By Spotlight

Michael Anderson is chief executive and founder of MedAccess, a social enterprise focused on improving access to medicines in poorly served communities. MedAccess is a subsidiary of the UK’s development finance institution, British International Investment. Anderson’s previous roles include working in law, government, academia, business and philanthropy, and in 2012 and 2013 he was the prime minister’s special envoy for UN Development Goals. He has held teaching positions at the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) and the London School of Economics (LSE).

How do you start your working day?

I’m up by 6am to feed the pets and to have my first cup of coffee (my Seattle roots lead to several cups a day). I either work from home in Brighton or hop on the train to the London office. Then it’s a day of video meetings across the world – a mix of victories and frustrations – with businesses, governments and health agencies.

What has been your career high?

Coordinating the UK’s push to increase global funding for vaccines in 2011. The UK had led the effort on ramping up vaccine funding when Gordon Brown created vaccine bonds in 2006, but rich countries had lost focus on the subject and there was a risk that existing systems would collapse. David Cameron and Andrew Mitchell [the international development secretary] led the way on rallying other governments to the cause, and we raised $4.3bn for Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. More investment followed over the next decade, and Gavi now supports 26 vaccines across low- and middle-income countries. Millions of lives have been protected, but we also built the foundations for responding to future pandemics.

What has been the most challenging moment of your career?  

When I was 18 I became the skipper of a commercial salmon-fishing boat off the small island where I was raised. There was a crew of four more experienced fishers, and yet I was the person who made decisions about how to set the nets, when to retreat from heavy seas, and which currents to risk. I had to build trust with a sceptical crew but also take the right decisions to keep us safe while ensuring that we had fish in the hold to pay the bills. It was an early lesson in finding ways to be bold and humble at the same time.

If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be?

Make peace with failure. There is no effort without error and shortcoming. There is no joy without the risk of misery.   Occasional failure is a great way to sharpen your professional edge, and it is a teacher of the deepest personal lessons. 

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[See also: Labour should go big and get on with green investment]

Which political figure inspires you?

There are many. The trio of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela are my go-to sources of inspiration. John Major is probably our most under-rated prime minister, placing long-term thinking above his own ego. But on the national scene today there is no one more inspiring than Caroline Lucas. As our sole Green member of parliament, she consistently brings an independent voice that benefits us all, whether we agree with her or not. She speaks with refreshing authenticity, including admitting mistakes, and has the emotional courage to point out the urgent priorities that we tend to avoid with apathy or hypocrisy.

What UK policy or fund is the government getting right?   

The recent reorganisation of the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office to create a permanent secretary position devoted to international development has already helped to make overseas aid more effective. When the Department for International Development was abolished in 2020, the nation lost one of its world-leading institutions. The new structures will go some way toward restoring focus, expertise and impact.

And what policy should the UK government scrap?   

Not so much a policy, but a recurring pattern. Successive governments of both parties have periodically restructured the NHS in the hope of improving efficiency. History now teaches us that changing the structure alone does little to help. Every restructuring takes years to implement and distracts from the core business of treating patients. An eye-catching reorganisation is no substitute for long-term planning and thoughtful attention to good management, starting with investing in people and innovation.

What upcoming UK policy or law are you most looking forward to?

Everyone should have the right to know who owns and controls a company. Without transparency it is too easy for anonymous owners to avoid accountability for money laundering, tax evasion or harm to others. The Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill 2022 should go a long way to help. It creates new regulatory powers to tackle financial crimes hidden behind the corporate veil and establishes a more powerful set of tools for owner transparency.

What piece of international government policy could the UK learn from? 

In 2001 Portugal took the lead in decriminalising the personal use of recreational drugs, prompting a dramatic drop in both crime and drug-related deaths. This and other examples prompted the Global Commission on Drug Policy to call for prohibition to be replaced with a regulated system governing the production, supply and use of drugs. Education, rehabilitation, and harm reduction would be essential. Replacing ideology with evidence: we know it works.

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be? 

We live in a golden age of medical innovation. Yet the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that two billion people lack access to essential medicines. Pharmaceutical firms invest far more in developing “me-too” copies of high-profit medications for sale in rich countries than in new antibiotics or life-saving products for the Global South. The UK could help with tax incentives for pharmaceutical companies whose innovation develops products to prevent or treat the neglected diseases of the Global South. In a world of global pandemics, it would build our own future health security too.

[See also: The hypocrisy of Rishi Sunak’s smoking ban]

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