Opinion article |

G-20 Leaders Put Your Money Where the Needs Are

Dr. Marie-Pierre Allié, President Médecins Sans Frontières - France, highlights the need to find new financial mechanisms to address global health concerns, specially a tax on financial transactions.


Against the backdrop of the financial crisis and the need to regulate financial markets, political leaders at the G20 meeting in Toronto will be debating whether to tax financial transactions and institutions. On June 21, French President Sarkozy and German Chancellor Merkel wrote to the Canadian prime minister on the subject. Two days later, the French, German and British governments announced their support for a tax on the banking sector. In the past, such a tax was dismissed as unrealistic. However, an International Monetary Fund report lately acknowledged its feasibility and a number of G20 leaders have now officially given their backing to the idea.

This idea may have finally made it onto the formal agendas, but it is not news to financial experts or to civil society. On a global scale, the taxation of financial institutions offers a remarkable opportunity to raise considerable sums. Dedicating just a fraction of the total to health would enable us to launch an effective struggle against diseases that kill several million people.

The financing of global health, which today means relying on the gestures and promises of a few countries, is creaking at the seams. Current levels of aid are vulnerable to the annual caps placed on national budgets and to shifts in political priorities. Such unpredictable changes in tack negatively impact progress in beneficiary countries and limit their ability to acquire experience and develop expertise.

HIV/AIDS is a case in point. Thanks to 10 years of political mobilization, more than four million people now have access to treatment. But the trend is now being reversed. AIDS funding is being capped, reduced, or even cancelled. Yet nine million more people are still waiting for treatment. If donors renege on their commitments, they will pull the rug from under the feet of those countries most affected by the disease.

The issue of child and maternal health – also a focus of discussions at the G8/G20 – is another example. Of the eight million children under the age of five who lose their lives each year, nearly one third die of malnutrition-related causes. The struggle against this disease remains underfunded. In a recent study, the World Bank estimated the annual cost of effective policies in this area at $12 billion, but annual commitments total just $350 million. Nutritional strategies must be revised – but in parallel, a tax on the financial sector could provide new funding that national governments fail to provide.

Tuberculosis is a further concern. Médecins Sans Frontières witnesses daily how the tools available to medical teams in the fight against this disease are woefully insufficient. The diagnostic test is ineffective for nearly half of all patients and the most recent treatments were developed 50 years ago. The AIDS pandemic has also resulted in an alarming resurgence of TB, and new drug-resistant strains leave doctors powerless. Long-term resources are needed to strengthen research and help develop new diagnostics and treatments.

A financial transactions tax is now within reach. Such a scheme would guarantee -- on a long-term basis and free from wavering national political priorities -- the sums required to address public health priorities. By announcing implementation of a tax on the banking sector, G20 leaders would be demonstrating the feasibility of such a mechanism. A tax on financial transactions would raise enough money to address these health imperatives. The technical issues have been resolved and the leaders of the G20 face a clear choice – either restrict their ambition to regulating the financial sector, or demonstrate their commitment to addressing health concerns on an effective, long-term basis.