Hélène De Beir Foundation calls for new approach to global health
Brussels, 21 October 2009
Francis De Beir, father of Hélène De Beir, the Belgian humanitarian affairs officer for Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), who was assassinated in Afghanistan in 2004, is a proud man.
The Hélène De Beir Foundation concluded a groundbreaking conference today. With the support of the Members of Parliament for the Millennium Development Goals, the Institute of Tropical Medicine, the AIDS Fund of the Netherlands and the leading medical journal The Lancet, the foundation gathered 80 experts from all parts of the world, thinkers and practitioners in the field of global health. Over three days, these experts explored new approaches to ensuring access to basic health services for 2.5 billion people, who are currently deprived of such services.
According to the World Health Organisation, it takes 40 US$ per person per year to provide basic health services in the poorest countries of the world. A small amount if compared to the 2.500 to 3.500 US$ per person per year budgets that are typical for high- income countries, but an unrealistically high amount for low-income countries. Gorik Ooms, former executive director of Médecins Sans Frontières Belgium and at present a researcher at the Institute of Tropical Medicine and at Yale University, presented basic estimates to the conference. "High-income countries promised to allocate the equivalent of 0.7% of their Gross Domestic Product to international solidarity. We need 0.1% of Gross Domestic Product - only a seventh of what has been promised decades ago- for health.
By 2015 - the year in which we promised to achieve the Millennium Development Goals- that would probably make 50 billion US$; combined with 50 billion US$ from domestic resources that would make 100 billion US$, or 40 US$ per person. It is perfectly possible.".
If 50 billion US$ is a lot of money, recently created global health solidarity channels like the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, demonstrate that is feasible to collect and distribute substantial amount of global health funding, while minimizing the risk of corruption and poor management. The key issue, as the experts agreed, is to abandon the idea that solidarity across borders is a temporary act of charity, and to embrace the idea that health is also a matter of global responsibility. Charity is the main motivation of the present development assistance approach, and that can be highly problematic. The 40 US$ per person per year primary health care approach can only work if that amount is guaranteed; it does not work if it is available when the global economy is doing well only to disappear when the global economy is performing poorly.
During the months and years to come, the Hélène De Beir Foundation will promote the idea of global responsibility for health, a new approach to global health, among non- governmental organisations, national and international institutions. The idea is simple and revolutionary at the same time. It simply means that when accepting that health is a human right, we recognise that it entails both national and international obligations. In recognising these obligations we accept that we have a duty of solidarity beyond borders. For when it comes to something as essential as achieving basic health services, we need to and can truly change the world.
Francis de Beir comments: "This is the kind of work I know my daughter would have done, if she had not been murdered. In creating the Hélène De Beir Foundation, I tried to perpetuate her dedication and ideas; it is her legacy to the world. It is strange, without her death, I would never have done that. As one of the participants to the conference told me, it is an example of the curios entanglement of good and bad; out of a dramatic event, a foundation that is moving mountains was born."
The Hélène De Beir Foundation adopted the objective of supporting the ideal of human dignity for all, with focus on health, through analysis, advocacy and awareness-building. President Jimmy Carter, President Mary Robinson, and other international personalities have given their support to the Foundation. Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and former High Commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations came to Brussels to express her support to the conference, together with the famous American economist Jeffrey Sachs. Her Royal Highness Princess Astrid of Belgium honoured the conference with her presence and expressed her support to the conclusions of the conference. Armand De Decker, chairperson of the Senate, invited the participants to share their findings with interested members of Parliament.
Hélène de Beir was a lawyer, she was trained as a diplomat, and she was working as a humanitarian affairs officer for Médecins sans Frontières when she was murdered. She combined an intellectual interest in theoretical concepts with a passion for down-to-earth practise; the Foundation that carries her name tries to create bridges between bright ideas and much-needed practice.
"There is so much work to be done", says Francis, president of the Foundation, "on global health and violence against women, global health and child mortality, global health and climate change, global health and terrorism... this was our first but not our last conference!"