The triggering of Article 50 gives us an historic opportunity to redefine our place in the world. Before the referendum I argued on this website that in leaving the EU we can become “an increasingly agile, pro-business country, leading the world in innovation and technology while remaining a political and moral power”. This is the bright future I believe in: ambitious, creative, influential. Where we can forge new relationships shaped by our values.
This is not a time to retreat from the world, but to recalibrate. In her recent speech in Philadelphia, the Prime Minister set out her determination to “restore our parliamentary sovereignty and national self-determination, and to become even more global and internationalist in action and in spirit”. She talked about her pledge to renew the UK’s nuclear deterrent and our commitment to NATO as a vital guarantor of British and allies’ security.
And, as she highlighted, just as we spend two per cent of GDP on defence, so too our 0.7 per cent foreign aid commitment is a vital plank of our engagement abroad, promoting and protecting British values and interests, and generating tremendous goodwill towards our nation.
Our aid helping the world’s poorest people will always have its critics, and Priti Patel has worked hard to get the best value out of what we give money to, as her predecessors, Justine Greening and Andrew Mitchell, did before her.
I agree that it is right we spend British taxpayers’ money in the most efficient and effective way possible. In doing so, we should make sure we tell the good-news stories of how this aid is making a difference. In few areas is this more apparent than in the fight against malaria.
Why malaria? It’s the world’s oldest killer disease, infecting hundreds of millions of sufferers and leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. It’s also entirely preventable and treatable and – thanks to cooperation between governments, business leaders, civil society and philanthropists – we are are within sight of a malaria-free world.
The global health agenda builds consensus among voters and policy makers in a way that few other causes can. The recent Ebola and Zika crises underline this. Put plainly, healthier people lead to healthier economies: more robust, productive countries that we can visit and trade with. There is both a virtue and a value in aid that is making the world safer and healthier for everyone.
Recent YouGov polling shows public opinion is firmly on side. 53 per cent of Conservative voters agree that “it is right that the UK plays its part in leading the fight to end malaria within a generation” and 52 per cent of Conservative voters want to see this achieved in their lifetime.
Just over a year ago, the UK Government pledged to maintain the UK’s annual £500 million commitment to 2020. With this kind of investment in insecticide-treated bed nets, faster diagnosis and effective drugs, phenomenal progress has been made to halt and begin to reverse the spread of malaria. Malaria deaths are down by more than 62 per cent (30 per cent in just the past five years)- saving 6.8 million lives, mainly those of children. Seventeen countries have eliminated malaria – and a further ten are on course to do so by 2020. But we mustn’t stop here.
Sustaining our efforts now is vital to ensure that the work undertaken and resource invested in recent years is not undone. As Patel has pointed out, allowing efforts to slip risks losing all the gains that were made. It’s taken over 30 years to recover the ground lost when malaria control activities ended in the 1970s.
Since 2000, Commonwealth countries have seen a marked change in their fortunes: Malawi has 1.5 million fewer malaria cases and 55 per cent fewer malaria deaths and, last September, Sri Lanka became the most recent state to be declared malaria-free – thus boosting its tourism industry.
This matters because malaria has a material as well as a human cost.
Its burden traps families in poverty, keeping adults out of work and young people out of school. Because of this, targeted intervention reaps significant rewards. As the Nobel laureates of the Copenhagen Consensus recently assessed every $1 spent against malaria generates social and economic benefits worth around $36.
The World Health Organisation estimates that since 2000, the reductions in malaria deaths can be valued at around $2040 billion – which, in context, is about 3.6% of the combined GDP of malaria-affected countries in 2015. The difference tackling malaria in developing countries can make to their ability to stand on their own two feet is profound.
As the second largest national donor, behind the USA, the UK is playing its part in making these strides forward. Our innovation too, both business-led and within our universities, is helping to find new and cheaper ways to tackle this disease and save lives. British organisations, from GSK developing the world’s first malaria vaccine to Liverpool’s IVCC (Innovative Vector Control Consortium), working on new insecticides, represent the very best in cutting-edge R&D that we can offer to the world.
And as recent news reports of anti-malarial drug resistance highlighted, malaria presents an evolving challenge that requires the scientific community to be agile and inventive. The London School of Tropical Medicine’s research on this area is a timely reminder that we cannot be complacent.
May is right to say that others should ‘step up’ and pull their weight: despite commitments, it remains the case that we are only one of five EU countries who have met the 0.7 per cent pledge. But as she indicates, we should be levelling up, not levelling down to the lowest common denominator. We can make an evidence-led case for ending malaria once and for all. The bold, ambitious Britain I believe in should be leading that charge.