Health ministers and representatives of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and E9 countries gathered in Johannesburg yesterday (Monday) to come up with a strategy which will ensure that health is placed high on the agenda of the forthcoming World Summit on Sustainable Development.
The summit, which is to take place in Johannesburg in August, is expected to build on the momentum of its predecessor, the Earth Summit, which was held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. While the Rio Summit highlighted the link between the environment and development, it is considered to have failed in emphasising the centrality of health to sustainable development – and this week’s meeting is aimed at ensuring that health does not get left out again.
The South African Health Department is hosting the strategic meeting together with the World Health Organisation to assess the extent to which health has been integrated into the forthcoming Johannesburg summit debates on environment and sustainable development.
South Africa has recently been designated as one of the E9 countries. The E9 are nine countries specifically designated because of their disproportionate impact on global environmental well-being through the size of their population and their economic power. They include Brazil, China, Germany (as representative of the European Region), India, Indonesia, Japan, Russia and the US. This group of countries accounts for 57% of the world’s population and 80% of its total economic output.
Opening the meeting, Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang said that the time was now right to mobilise political support at the highest level and across the development spectrum. Largely as a result of the catastrophic impact of HIV/AIDS, the international community was showing signs of a new sensitivity to the suffering of people in the developing world.
“In the last year, we have seen concessions on patent protection of essential medicines at the WTO meeting in Doha, and we have seen the birth of a totally new international assistance vehicle in the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, TB and Malaria,” she said.
Dr Andrew Cassels, director of health and development at the World Health Organisation, said there was a growing body of evidence – particularly from the Commission for Macroeconomics and Health – that the economic losses that result from ill-health had previously been underestimated and that investing in health is a key driving force in economic development.
The Commission reported last month that as many as 8 million lives could be saved every year if a global programme of essential interventions against infectious diseases and nutritional deficiencies could be implemented. It estimates that through spending $66 billion on this global programme, the gain in terms of productivity, growth and social contribution would be about $360 billion – a six fold return.
Cassels said there was a complex problem facing governments: how to find mutually supportive strategies, how to seek coherence across different sectors, how to ensure policies were complementary and how to handle trade-offs.
“There is a no one-size-fits-all solution to sustainable development. Countries will find their own answers, but part of our task here is to help find a clear and productive way out of the maze,” he said.