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WHO INVENTED THE $2.50 MALARIA NET?

15 February 2005

The U.N. needed the positive attention after a bad stretch of negative reporting. Particularly Secretary General Kofi Annan and refreshingly new Chief de Cabinet Mark Mallock-Brown needed to be seen having an impact with the timely report on millennium goals. They had the whole U.N. Communications machinery at their disposal. But they might as well have disposed of it. Except for accredited reporters who attended the briefing in Room 226 and some accommodating reporters in Brussels, it was Geffrey Sachs who carried the ball to a cheering crowd of internationalists from New York via Brussels through Davos. An impressive promoter with the timely soundbite, the eternally puzzled professor peered from TV screens, wrote editorials and reached the peak on the Swiss Alps resort where he effectively spun that simple attractive proposal about the need to only get a $2.50 net to prevent the death of one million Africans from malaria. He challenged the assembled leaders, including presidents Mbeke of South Africa and Obasonj of Nigeria, to meet in two years' time if only to check on the state of the nets. Even the American-accented Irish U-2 singer Bono seemed overwhelmed, pressing his dark glasses and possibly wondering why hadn't he been slipped that idea by his newly found friends? Sharon Stone, no less, sprung into action. She grabbed the mike to contribute $10,000. Richard Gere, who apparently has his own NGO, followed suit. Within half an hour, the President of Tanzania was the surprised recipient of one million dollars worth of tents. How could he go home without them?

Interestingly, it is not clear who actually "invented" the tents story so ably promoted by the sharp-minded professor. It was indeed one of the proposals in the recently submitted report on achieving Milleunium goals. Around the same time, a new very interesting book by Sabastian Mallaby on World Bank Chief James Wolfensohn refers to these tents. The former Economist Washington Bureau Chief who had served in Africa wrote on the first page of the preface, the Prisoner of Lilliput, that one section of humanity enjoys $2 lattes and disposable cameras; the other section lives on $2 a day and appears itself to be disposable. He added that it costs $2.50 to buy a bed net to keep out malarial mosquitoes while African children were dying from malaria at a rate of roughly two per minute. In a footnote, Mallaby mentions the source as Lawrence Barat, a malaria specialist from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who was seconded to the World Bank. True to his professional work, he also points out that getting those nets may not be enough. You needed to get them to children; you needed an efficient distribution network; a system to handle the finances involved; a peaceful situation; parents and health workers who have not been carried off by AIDS, wars or famine.

Whether it was Sachs, Mallaby or that researcher seconded to the World Bank, the issue was now brought to the attention of key decision takers and influence makers. The U.N. was also brought in the picture occasionally, with a reference to the Colombia professor as head of the U.N. Millennium Goals project. We had hoped that more mileage could have been deservedly credited after a string of scandals that eroded the image of senior U.N. officials.

Africa needs all the attention it can get. It received $23 billion during 2003 according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECI). Much of it must have gone astray. Poverty conditions did not improve. The sub-Sahara is the poorest region. More than 70% live on less than $2 a day -- that is less than it costs to buy that now famous net. Yet Africa is one of the richest continents in resources. Its soil is fertile with almost every mineral, agricultural and human bounties which could feed Africa, nourish Africans and enrich the world. Maybe it needs effective management or better governance as is fashionably repeated these days. Enthusiastic fund-raising for special projects could help. Training to run them could be valuable. Yet all these well-intentioned and welcome ventures will reach nowhere really until it is globally recognized that Africa needs TRADE NOT AID.