In Aid of the BRICS

Global Health Strategies, an NGO that works with the Gates Foundation and other groups, recently released a report on the so-called BRICS countries and global public health. Its main point is that the BRICS countries had an increasing and largely invisible role in world health, especially among the poorest of the poor.

This may surprise some. After all, India has more poor than Sub-Saharan Africa, so helping other parts of the world at a time when there is so much want at home seems a false priority. But this state of affairs is actually two sides of the same coin. To keep drug prices low in India, pharmaceutical companies must export, and what they export is generic drugs. These drug formulations, combined with China’s ability to produce cheap bulk chemicals, is one reason Gates and other groups are able to keep so many millions in Africa and elsewhere on retrovirus cocktails.

Interestingly, the GHS report noted there are generous public health pronouncements after most BRICS summits that reflect this. But the promises, so far, have not materialised.

The report also underlines why this may be a matter of importance. The BRICS countries are becoming major international aid donors in their own right. While their absolute figures remain in the one billion to three billion dollar range, this puts them at the same level as the poorer Group of Seven countries like Italy and Canada.

More importantly, the figures for growth in aid are striking. BRICS countries’ annual aid budget increases far surpass those in the West. The Group of Seven have seen aid budgets increase at less than 5% over the 2005-2010 period; Italy’s budget fell 10% and the US’s and Japan’s by 1% or less, respectively. The figures for the BRICS: 35% growth for Russia, little over 20% for Brazil and China, 10% for India and 8% for South Africa.

Unfortunately, BRICS governments have whimsical accounting standards when it comes to measuring aid. Brazil doles out between $400 million and $1.1 billion in aid (these are all 2010 figures), depending on the measuring stick. GHS believes it closer to the latter. China gives $3.9 billion, but 90% is concessional loans. India gives out $680 million but does not count concessional loans in its figures. The latter figure is almost certainly massive: concessional loans to Bangladesh alone ran to one billion dollars. Russia doles out about $500 million.

India has officially announced the creation of a single aid agency but has yet to get it up and running. And it is not clear if its loan portfolio will be part of its ambit. At the latest BRICS summit, a meeting of health ministers was called, hopefully to put a frame around what they are already doing on the ground.


Copyright © 2012 the Hindustan Times.

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