Can we vaccinate the world against poverty?

by Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala | Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance
Thursday, 27 April 2017 10:12 GMT

A boy receives polio vaccination drops during a house-to-house vaccination campaign in Sanaa, Yemen February 20, 2017. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

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Education is the strongest antidote to poverty and we have the opportunity to dramatically expand access to this remedy

Vaccinations of 1.6 million children are halting an outbreak of measles in Cambodia. In drought-stricken Somalia, 450,000 people are being immunized against the spread of deadly cholera. And in Brazil, 3.5 million doses of yellow fever vaccine are being deployed to quell a potential epidemic.

All this happened in the past month, thanks to vaccines.   

Nearly two decades ago, global leaders initiated a ground-breaking effort to get new and underused vaccines to the world’s poorest people. At the time, millions of children were dying each year from preventable diseases. The solution was ambitious but feasible: create a financing facility that would mobilize and leverage funds to vaccinate as many children as possible. What became known as the Gavi Vaccine Alliance has saved more than seven million lives. And over the past 20 years, child mortality has plummeted in nearly every country around the world. 

Today we’re faced with a need that is just as urgent: we are endangering the futures of more than 800 million children who will not have access to quality education. By 2030, these young people will lack the basic secondary school-level skills necessary for 21st century jobs. They will not be able to shape their own futures or the economies of their countries, most of which – like my home country Nigeria – are struggling to climb out of poverty. Without the stabilizing foundation that an education provides, our youth might feel hopeless and turn to violence, fueling conflict and threats to global security.

We cannot afford to let this happen. But is there a clear solution? Can we vaccinate the world against poverty?

The answer is “yes,” but any solution will require both political will and a clear vision of what can be achieved. I am a member of the Education Commission – a group of political, business, and civil society leaders from countries as diverse as Australia, Mexico, Pakistan, the UK, and Tanzania who work together to ensure that the world’s children are all in school and learning.

Our message is clear. The strongest antidote to poverty is quality education, and we have the opportunity to dramatically expand access to this remedy through a breakthrough financing plan for an International Finance Facility for Education.

We recently presented the proposed Facility during the World Bank/IMF Spring Meetings. At a series of gatherings in the U.S. capital – with development experts, African finance ministers, and more – the demand for such a Facility was evident, and we intend to act on this need.  In July, we’ll take the same proposal to the G20 Summit in Germany. It’s been shaped by listening to hundreds of people across 80 countries, representing a wide variety of organizations and sectors, including many young people. 

The Facility would be built on a partnership between international donors and developing countries that have a deep desire and commitment to improve learning for their children. These latter countries would do much of the hard work, committing to scale up their investment in education from the current average of 4% to 5.8% of their GDP – up to $3 trillion annually by 2030 – and implementing meaningful reforms to ensure children are in school and learning. But even these high levels of spending plus external assistance from donors won’t be enough to cover costs. This is where the Facility comes in, working with the world’s development banks to coordinate funding and create attractive financing packages that multiply the impact of donor dollars to fill this funding gap.

Once in operation, the Facility could mobilize upwards of $13 billion annually for education by 2020. This would double the available external support we give today. Together with the commitments of developing countries, that will go a long way toward putting those 800 million children on track for healthier, more fulfilling, and productive lives. This investment in human capital would strengthen their families, communities, and countries, and make our world more stable and prosperous. That’s good news for everyone.

We know from experience that an innovative public-private partnership like Gavi can work. But can global leaders bring the same energy, funding, and focus to the challenge of dramatically expanding access to education? We hope that they will say yes, and give education funding a much-needed shot in the arm.

Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is the Chair of Gavi and the former Minister of Finance of Nigeria