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Some mortar for BRICS

Health can be a crucial area of cooperation for the fledging alliance. Anjali Nayyar writes.

india Updated: Apr 10, 2012 22:44 IST
Anjali Nayyar

Even though the Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa (BRICS) alliance is gaining importance at the world level, some analysts remain pessimistic about it. They claim competing interests among the BRICS nations could limit broader cooperation. As some put it, “The BRICS lack mortar.”

However, there are other areas — like health — where their interests can align because the members share a number of public health challenges. While infectious diseases like tuberculosis and HIV/Aids remain a cause for concern for all, non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease are also on the rise. It is because of their common health challenges and growing research and development expertise that these countries have the potential to dramatically impact health outcomes within their borders and around the world. In fact, some BRICS countries believe that it is a prerequisite that they address their domestic challenges before they can be taken seriously on the global stage. Individually, all five countries are investing heavily in health research and development, which could generate programmes and technologies with a transcontinental reach.

In the increasingly connected world, diseases know no borders. There’s clear advantage in pooling resources and a knowledge to strengthen health globally. Cooperation on health among countries with divergent interests is hardly unprecedented. During the Cold War, scientists from the US and the Soviet Union collaborated to test the oral polio vaccine with the blessings of their respective governments.

In addition, donor spending from the US and Europe is slowing down and in some cases declining. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria recently cancelled its 11th round of funding for critical treatment and prevention programmes in some of the world’s poorest countries.

There is clearly an urgent need for new global health resources and champions. With growing technical capacity, thriving private sectors, and the recent experience of addressing pressing health challenges, the BRICS is positioned perfectly to play this role and improve health in less developed countries.

A recent publication by Global Health Strategies Initiatives, (Shifting Paradigm: How the BRICS are Reshaping Global Health and Development) on BRICS’ foreign assistance trends and outlays shows significant increases in recent years — about 10 times faster than those of the G7. We found that some of the most significant contributions to global health have come from the private sector in BRICS. Indian companies, for example, have played a critical role in providing low cost, high quality vaccine and HIV/Aids treatments to millions throughout the world. India just surpassed one full year without a single case of wild polio. India could use its experience and technical capacity to work with the remaining polio-endemic countries to make the final push to eradicate the disease once and for all.

Granted, the BRICS still give far smaller foreign assistance than the G7 countries, and there are some reasons to be cautious about whether these five countries can effectively work together. However, at least in the area of health, the BRICS would have much greater impact working together as a collective than it would alone.

Anjali Nayyar is Co-Executive Director, Global Health Strategies, a non-profit organisation. The views expressed by the author are personal.