What’s next for US global health funding?

On April 30th, a bipartisan budget deal was passed which will keep the US government funded through the end of September this year. Although funding for global health programs remains largely intact this year (in some cases, budgets have even increased), the future of US global health funding is looking pretty bleak.

Trump’s “skinny budget” proposal for fiscal year 2018 includes steep cuts of nearly 30% to foreign aid and diplomacy delivered through the Department of State. Additionally Trump’s budget proposes cuts to the United Nations and its affiliated agencies, multilateral development banks like the World Bank, and the complete elimination of funding for the Fogarty International Center. And while we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief knowing that malaria programs, PEPFAR, the Global Fund, and Gavi have been spared, the proposed 25% cut to global health programs is disconcerting to all of us within the international development and global health community.

Although such dramatic cuts in US foreign aid spending impacting global health are rightfully shocking, a recent study published in the Lancet shows that financing for global health programs by all development agencies (which includes bilateral (government to government) assistance, multilateral development banks, international NGOs, and others) has already been slowing significantly in recent years. Between 2010 and 2016, development assistance for health grew annually at only 1.8% compared to 11.3% in the first decade in the millennium and 4.6% in the 1990s.

The United States is currently the largest contributor (in absolute dollar amounts) of bilateral foreign assistance even though we spent only 0.18% of our gross national income (GNI) in 2016 on foreign assistance. As a comparison, the OECD country which spent the most of its GNI on foreign assistance, Norway, spent 1.11%. (Just in case you’re curious, most of our federal tax dollars are budgeted toward defense, social security, and major health programs.)

With Trump touting an “America First” agenda and Americans grossly bigly overestimating the amount the US spends on foreign assistance (on average, those polled guessed 26%), it is probably safe to guess that the general public knows little about how foreign assistance can help contribute to a safer America. Although a majority of US foreign aid goes toward funding critical global health programs (including being the largest funder of HIV/AIDS projects), foreign aid isn’t completely altruistic. Foreign aid also helps bring peace and stability to countries where we can benefit from open trade and less volatile economies. In addition, foreign aid helps keep Americans healthy by preventing the global spread of deadly diseases.

In a recent op-ed for Time magazine, Bill Gates provides the proof in the pudding:

According to one study, political instability and violent activity in African countries with PEPFAR programs dropped 40 percent between 2004 and 2015. Where there was no PEPFAR program, the decline was just 3 percent.

….. A more stable world is good for everyone. But there are other ways that aid benefits Americans in particular. It strengthens markets for U.S. goods: of our top 15 trade partners, 11 are former aid recipients. It is also visible proof of America’s global leadership. Popular support for the U.S. is high in Africa, where aid has such a dramatic impact. When you help a mother save her child’s life, she never forgets. Withdrawing now would not only cost lives, it would create a leadership vacuum that others would happily fill.

As global financing for international health programs is expected to continue to slow, it is critical that the United States continues to provide foreign assistance not only because it keeps Americans safe and our economy healthy, but also because it is the right thing to do. While it’s true that foreign aid is in desperate need of extensive reform and that at some point a few low-income countries will be able to start financing a majority of their own health programs, change doesn’t happen overnight. Another Lancet study found that global spending on health is expected to increase from $9.21 trillion USD in 2014 to $24.24 trillion USD in 2040 with low-income countries growing at 1.8% and per capita spending expected to remain low. Failing to support global funding for health at adequate levels has serious consequences not only for the health and well-being of the millions of vulnerable individuals around the world who depend on our support, but in a world where we are inextricably linked, it also endangers the health and well-being of the American people.

The bipartisan deal reached by Congress provides a small glimmer of hope that Trump’s proposed cuts may be dead on arrival, but in such an unpredictable political climate, our collective cynicism is teaching us to expect the unexpected. Trump’s full budget proposal is expected to be released the week of May 22nd. Until then, let’s make sure we are fully prepared to fight in this uphill battle.

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