Monday, January 22, 2007

Anti-malaria program stalled by funding delay

A Canadian program that's saved thousands of Africans from deadly malaria has been scaled back while federal officials decide whether to renew funding.

Critics say it's a bizarre case of bureaucratic foot-dragging in the face of overwhelming success. But the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) calls it due diligence to ensure money is well spent on a program it supports.

More than one million people die from malaria each year, 90 per cent of them in sub-Saharan Africa. A child succumbs to the preventable disease there every 30 seconds. There is no vaccine.

The Canadian Red Cross, over the last three years, has given away 2.6 million treated bed nets, worth $8 each, in Zambia, Togo, Niger, Mozambique, Malawi and Sierra Leone. The filmy nets are crucial protection, credited in follow-up surveys with saving some 70,000 lives.

Mothers and children formed huge lines to receive the bed nets, along with measles vaccines and vitamins. The revolutionary campaigns offering multiple treatments were launched mostly thanks to $26 million from Canada's federal aid agency.

The program is so respected that elements have been copied by other aid groups. CIDA is spending $9 million through UNICEF to distribute more than one million mosquito nets in Ethiopia.

But there isn't enough cash to launch other desperately needed countrywide campaigns, says the Red Cross.

"We have a little bit of money left and are looking at doing some small-scale work in Madagascar and Burkina Faso," says Jason Peat, malaria program manager for the Canadian Red Cross.

Both those African countries face high death rates from malaria. It's a constant threat that costs many struggling families up to one-quarter of their annual income for prevention and treatment.

With about $4 million left, the options for other programs are limited, Peat said in an interview.

"What we're looking at now, because we have a lot less funding, is trying to fill gaps.

"I think what's being lost is that Canadian money in the last three years has had a massive impact. It's important we try to maintain that momentum."

Red Cross officials first asked for extended funding for the campaign 17 months ago. Negotiations with federal aid officials have continued on and off since then, intensifying in the last two months.

A spokesman for the CIDA says the government couldn't approve more cash without assessing possible improvements and fully reviewing a final proposal from the Red Cross.

That document was only received last week, said the official who asked not to be named. A decision is expected in the next few weeks.

"This is the first I've heard that we don't have a final proposal in front of them," said Peat of the Red Cross in a follow-up interview.

"We're kind of in constant negotiation. When does a proposal become `final'?"

Red Cross officials stress that they have a good relationship with CIDA and understand the time it takes to approve funding.

Others are less circumspect.

"There's been an abundance of time for CIDA to arrive at a monosyllabic decision: Yes or No," says Amir Attaran, a law professor and development specialist at the University of Ottawa.

"It's a no-brainer."

Attaran was in Sierra Leone last November when the Red Cross gave out 875,000 bed nets at nine distribution points.

"The sight of parents, flocked by children, standing in line under blazing sun for basically the whole day, really left an impression on me."

NDP MP Alexa McDonough, the party's international development critic, is in Africa for a two-week tour of Kenya and Uganda.

She has spoken with families in remote parts of Kenya about how bed nets have changed their lives.

"They said their children were just sick all the time before," she said in an interview from Nairobi. "But once the bed nets were used, this was no longer the case.

"I cannot imagine any possibility other than wanting to continue programs that are so cost-effective and remarkably successful."

Raymond Alpha, a Red Cross malaria project officer in Sierra Leone, hopes Ottawa will extend funding – and soon.

"Malaria has caused the deaths of too many children across Africa," he said from Freetown, the capital.

"It's better if they could act now."

Link to TheStar.com