Education for girls and vaccines can save Africa from disaster | Phillip Inman

There are so many good causes in the world it is often difficult to know where aid money should go. As leaders line up to attend the G7 summit in Cornwall, the most effective destinations for aid money have become clearer – a global vaccination programme and improving girls’ education.

This is especially true in sub-Saharan Africa, where so much can go wrong over the next 10 years – a population explosion, massive biodiversity loss, desertification, famine and mass migration to mention just a few – that unless we focus our efforts on vaccines and girls’ education, whatever is done to alleviate poverty or tackle the climate emergency will be threatened or even sabotaged in almost every other region of the world.

As leaders arrive in Carbis Bay, they may still be involved in an unseemly fight over vaccine patents that could stymie any hopes of a global vaccination programme. In the blue corner is Germany, which has found itself the proud parent to the most successful anti-Covid drug – the BioNTech vaccine licensed by Pfizer, and what is expected to be the next big thing, the CureVac vaccine, which could be only days away from gaining European approval.

Like BioNTech, CureVac’s version is based on messenger RNA (mRNA), a technology that has so far proved more effective and more stable than the one championed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca.

US president Joe Biden is in the red corner, calling for patents to be waived in the fight against the disease. Germany says no, seeing a cynical plot by the US to undermine its first major success in an industry previously dominated by US pharma.

There is right on both sides, but the broader picture is that the shareholders and bosses of many pharma companies have become obscenely rich on the back of terrible suffering and should give up their patents for the greater good.

It may be upsetting for the Germans to be asked to make a sacrifice when US pharma businesses have ignored vaccines for decades and fought viciously to maintain patents on antiretroviral HIV therapies, but there is a higher calling.

On Monday Tomorrow, the government’s foreign aid cuts come under scrutiny after Tory MP Andrew Mitchell succeeded in forcing a Commons vote. Last year, foreign secretary Dominic Raab announced that the UK would cut aid spending from 0.7% of national income to 0.5% – a reduction of more than £4bn. The newly integrated Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office stands accused of reducing the funding for some programmes by 85% or more.

Earlier this year Raab indicated that bilateral aid for Africa would be £764m, which critics denounced after government statistics showed that in 2019 Africa received £2.4bn in bilateral aid. Lady Sugg accused Raab of cutting girls’ education funding by more than 40%. The former Tory foreign office minister also claimed the government was planning to close its flagship women’s integrated sexual health (Wish) programme and cut spending on the Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition by up to 80%.

FCDO officials are piecing together new targets for funding girls’ education and sexual health, and say close to half of the UK’s bilateral aid is destined for Africa, but probably know they don’t have the funds to carry out a fraction of what is needed.

And that’s a big blow to African governments, all of which are struggling to get girls back into education after the pandemic. Without an education, girls will be unable to get paid work and be independent.

All the studies show that when women gain control of their lives they also gain control of their bodies and have fewer children. Sub-Saharan Africa’s population is expected to rise from 1.1 billion to nearer 2 billion by 2050 and is one of the main drivers of global population growth towards 10 billion.

Julia Gillard, the former prime minister of Australia, champions the education of girls as patron of the international education non-profit Camfed (the campaign for girls’ education), possibly the most important aid agency at the moment.

African leaders are well aware of the benefits that flow from educating girls, from the immediate economic income to the wider gains for the planet.

What they lack is the resources, and the pandemic will prove a huge setback, making it more difficult to lure girls back to school, especially when their families find it difficult to make ends meet without more help at home.

It must be hoped that more than 30 Tory rebels join Labour, Liberal Democrats and other right-minded MPs to defeat the government’s aid cuts, and that world leaders drop their animus over vaccines. There is a catastrophe to be avoided.

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