Theresa May should see that health is also vital for Africa’s economic development

Hats off to the PM, three countries at the extremities of the African continent in three days is hard core.

Other than being impressed by the miles covered, one line of Theresa May’s speech – not a very rare one in development circles – stood out for me:

60 per cent of [Africans] are aged under 25. Such a young population represents a phenomenal level of human capital and potential. With their innovation, dynamism and creativity, Africa’s young people could enrich not only this continent but the world economy and society at large.

Correct. It is hugely encouraging to hear a premier of a G7 country talking like this, seeing the coming surge of potential in a positive light. Though next to this, many are rightly wary of the pledge to change the direction of aid so that to ‘unashamedly’ benefit the UK.

These two approaches can fit perfectly well together. The UK will only benefit from trading with the countries of Africa if the populations of those countries are healthy, active members of the workforce, able to buy the UK’s products and not crippled by debt drawn from seeking basic health services. This is a reality – hundreds of millions of people are pushed into or further into poverty each year by having to pay to access healthcare, and the rate is growing. These hundreds of millions have no concern for buying the best of British, they simply are trying to survive.

The PM is right; the UK does need to shake up how it spends aid, the entire international community needs to modernise aid to fit the needs of countries today. But not by moving resources away from areas that support those in need, where the majority of human capital potential lies. UK aid must make transformative investments into the areas that will create an enabling environment for children and young adults to thrive, realising full potential of that human capital. The UK also needs to make smart investments because there is a huge gap between how much money is currently being used to further the development of poorer countries and what is needed – for child and maternal health services there is a $33.3bn annual gap.

The UK does have options. One innovative option is the Global Financing Facility (GFF) which maximises investments made by donors such as the UK by leveraging far greater amounts of World Bank and private sector finance. This finance is then invested by that country into health and nutrition services for women and children, strengthening the health systems, and increasing the financing structures of that country so that it will be able to stand on its own feet and eventually provide healthcare for all without the need for aid. This approach is already having an impact in African countries.

The UK has a long and proud history of leading the development community. As the world progresses it is right for the UK’s approach to development to evolve. This doesn’t mean moving away from the strengths of UK – health, nutrition, education, livelihoods – but by making smart and innovative technical and financial investments. The next investment to unashamedly benefit the UK is the GFF.

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