RSTMH responds to cuts to UK Official Development Aid

29 Apr 2021

The Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene is deeply concerned to learn of the UK government’s decision to significantly cut Official Development Assistance (ODA) – as part of the reduction of foreign aid from 0.7% to 0.5% of the UK budget.

It is currently unclear what this means for the number of individuals, communities and countries affected, but it would certainly include reductions in funding that supports disease control and elimination, innovation and research, and that strengthens global health systems and resilience.

The cuts will affect RSTMH's work in the UK and with our international partners on areas including One Health and pandemic preparedness, which we have all witnessed to be a global issue.

This comes in the year in which the UK is chairing the G7 meeting, which we understand will include pandemic preparedness in its priorities, and we had hoped would galvanise leadership in investment for preparedness to prevent the next outbreak from affecting so many lives around the world.

It will also impact work on water and sanitation in a year in which the UK leads COP26, and we had hoped to see progress on bringing together environmental and health issues on a global scale. 

Impact on the most vulnerable

These cuts will impact many of our members and Fellows, their institutions and organisations, and their ongoing work.

Most importantly, it will negatively affect the people and communities we all work to support – those who are vulnerable to weaker health systems, to infectious diseases and neglected tropical diseases, those in conflict zones, where water and sanitation provision is poor, or where income poverty is high and access to education and other human rights is low.

This would also be happening at a time when these communities are often being hit the hardest by COVID-19.

Tamar Ghosh, RSTMH CEO

Investments in NTDs have paid dividends

The response against the cuts has been united and robust. RSTMH supports this reaction and adds its voice to the appeal that the decision be reversed.

Many of the responses we have been directly involved with include those working in the areas of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), where the impact is estimated to be a funding loss of up to £150m this financial year.

Indeed, on 28 April, the UK Coalition Against NTDs – a collaborative partnership between 16 UK-based organisations and entities actively engaged in research, implementation and advocacy for effective sustainable control and elimination of NTDs – released a statement which we whole-heartedly support. In the statement, the Coalition says:

“Investments in NTDs have paid dividends in terms of strengthening local system capacity, improving programme effectiveness, and reducing long-term reliance on donor aid – precisely the measures needed to address current and future crises. […]

“The UK has been a global leader in the fight against NTDs not just in terms of significant investment but in driving value for money, integration and good practice. These efforts have supported several countries to reach the brink of disease elimination – a chance also to end the need for continued external support. Ending this investment now, before gains have been fully realised, and while resurgence of disease remains a risk, is tantamount to a waste of taxpayers’ money.”

With the UK hosting the G7 summit in June this year, we agree that such actions are counter to the idea that the UK is a leader in the global fight to reduce poverty and improve health.

Aid cuts will impede efforts to reduce poverty

Uniting to Combat NTDs – a collective of dedicated partners working together to defeat ten NTDs – has mobilised dozens of signatories, including RSTMH, to an open letter to the UK government showing the outrage felt at these devastating cuts. They said:

“Investments in NTDs have been a development success story with 43 countries having eliminated at least one NTD, including 14 in the Commonwealth, and 600 million people no longer requiring treatment for them, showing that funding can make a significant impact. […]

“If funding is halted, progress on poverty reduction and girls’ education will be set back, which was declared a key government priority. Young people affected by NTDs are less likely to attend school and will have lower earning potential as adults… These aid cuts risk children’s lives. They will impede efforts to reduce poverty and improve access to education.”

Longer-term implications for global health

Not only is there a moral imperative to help the billion plus people around the world suffering from these debilitating diseases, there are also strong economic arguments to reverse these cuts, as well as the danger of a longer-term global health disaster looming if the UK government persists in this course of action.

Tamar Ghosh said:

"We have been reminded in the last year of the importance of enabling science to drive healthcare decisions, and yet this decision does not seem to follow scientific evidence.

"For example, we have seen that cuts to malaria control programmes in the past led to malaria coming back, and costing more to bring it under control. This could be the case for many such diseases and also of those working in health roles with specific knowledge and expertise.

"We know that strengthening health systems to tackle any disease enables communities to tackle many diseases, and so cutting funding has a multiplying effect on resilience. There is also a specific risk that stopping treatment for NTDs which use antibiotics could impact on the incredible global efforts in place to tackle AMR, which the UK has done so much to drive forwards.”

Joining the global health community

Professor David Molyneux, former RSTMH President, Editor-in-Chief of RSTMH’s journal, International Health and one of the founding voices in developing the term "neglected tropical diseases" and leading the global fight against these diseases, said:

“The undeniable fact is that through the generosity of the major pharmaceutical companies, country commitment, operational research, strong partnerships and donor support, many of the poorest, most vulnerable people beyond the reach of traditional health services have been saved from irreversible disability. Health systems have been strengthened and communities enabled to lead more productive lives.”

This year we have seen great progress – most recently The Gambia eliminating blinding trachoma – and the launch of the WHO’s landmark NTDs road map in January. We are concerned that cuts in programmes that are generously supported by donations from industry, foundations and donors would hinder their ability to provide long term support when programmes are able to restart.

We join the rest of the global health community in condemning these cuts and hope that the UK government reconsiders its position on what could negatively impact millions of vulnerable people around the world.

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