Yvonne Chaka Chaka: African leaders must keep their health spending promise

Yvonne Chaka Chaka is a ONE member, renowned South African vocalist and performer, and president of the Princess of Africa Foundation. She is also a Roll Back Malaria and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador/MDG Envoy for Africa. 

Over the years, I’ve continually learned the value of keeping promises. As a musician and a businesswoman, I would lose the loyalty and trust of my fans and colleagues without following through on my promises to perform, speak, and release new music.

When pledges aren’t kept, progress stops and trust is lost. These are truths that apply to us all, including our leaders.

I remember the hope I felt in 2001, when African leaders met in Abuja, Nigeria and each pledged to take measures to halt the spread of HIV, tuberculosis (TB) and malaria in addition to increasing their country’s funding for health to at least 15% of their annual budget. I saw it as a turning point in Africa’s history – a point where our continent would be able to emerge from decades of watching the potential of our citizens, communities, and countries be stunted by disease.

But pledges don’t pay doctors, nurses or community workers, they don’t buy medicines, and they don’t keep the lights running in our hospitals.

In July, our leaders will once again gather in Abuja, Nigeria, to review progress made on HIV, TB and malaria and discuss the state of the continent’s health.

The Princess of Africa Foundation and the Africa Regional Civil Society Platform on Health raise our voices and call on our African leaders to prioritise good governance, collaboration and harmonisation of efforts toward implementing the “Accelerated Road Map on Shared Responsibility and Global Solidarity for AIDS, TB and Malaria responses in Africa”.  Furthermore, we urge each country to develop health financing plans that lead toward ensuring universal access to quality health care.

We hope that as Africa’s health reaches a critical crossroads, our leaders use this opportunity to follow through on their commitments with concrete action and plans for the future that include effective monitoring of the implementation at country level.

There has undoubtedly been progress. A handful of African countries have reached the 15% target, with 27 African countries having increased their domestic investment in health. The U.N. Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have catalysed improvements on development across countries. Due to international investment channeled through the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, we are now at a point where we can see the end of all three diseases.

But within this story of progress, it is intolerable that many of our communities are still left behind.

Over the past six years, I’ve traversed our continent as a U.N. ambassador and humanitarian, meeting brave patients, heroic healthcare workers and visionary health activists. But few experiences affected me like my 2009 trip to Sierra Leone – a country with the world’s third highest maternal mortality rate. Sitting with the women of Sierra Leone and listening to their grief over friends, mothers, sisters, and daughters lost to preventable and treatable causes convinced me that we cannot lose resolve.

Africa is still behind on reaching the MDGs related to improving maternal health and reducing child mortality, while our progress on MDG goal six – fighting HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria, and other diseases – is uncertain as the Global Fund looks to raise $15 billion to continue its life-saving work for the next three years.

While international donors should be commended for coming forward to fund the Global Fund, our own leaders must follow through on their health pledges. Each country must scale up its support for health going beyond the 15 percent commitment to implementing innovative financing mechanisms, investing in the infrastructure and human resources needed to strengthen health systems, while also putting in place policies to ensure all Africans, no matter where they live, can access affordable and effective healthcare.

There will always be naysayers who say, “We can’t afford it”, but you can’t argue with evidence that a healthy population is key to long-term economic development. Consider the economic costs of falling backwards: If resources dry up, the cost of putting out the flares of resurgent epidemics like malaria or tuberculosis will far exceed investment needed today.

Leaders can no longer look back on the 2001 Abuja Declaration and pat themselves on the back. They can only look forward to the work that must be done, and turn pledges and promises into action and resources.

Our leaders today will write the history of tomorrow, and they must keep the trust of us, the citizens who elected them to power. It’s not just promises at stake – it’s our lives. We must all remain vigilant to ensure our leaders fulfill their health promises.

Take action: ONE is campaigning to make sure world leaders continue to invest in the Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB and Malaria. It’s our biggest weapon in the fight against these preventable diseases that still claim millions of lives every year.  Sign the petition now.

You can also follow Yvonne Chaka Chaka on Twitter and Facebook.