The United States has had a long and proud history of being a world leader on global health issues. Over the last decade, the U.S. has led the charge in tackling numerous challenges such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and neglected tropical diseases, showing both pragmatic and moral leadership in the effort to improve health worldwide.
In doing so, the U.S. has demonstrated particular attention to the poor, a focus that Pope Francis has strongly encouraged in his first year in office. After his meeting last month with the Holy Father, President Obama said he and the American people had been inspired by the new pope’s global leadership on poverty.
“I was extremely moved by his insights about the importance of us all having a moral perspective on world problems,” the president shared after his conversation with the pope.
One of the biggest indicators of a country’s priorities from a moral perspective is how it chooses to spend its revenue. The United States has steadily increased its aid in important global health efforts, most notably those that improve the lives of the poorest people on earth. In the most recently passed budget, a bipartisan group of lawmakers continued this trend, increasing federal funding for global health.
Sadly, the budget proposed by the president last month for the coming year is a step backwards. The White House document includes significant and worrisome cuts to programs tackling health conditions affecting the world’s poorest people, such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and neglected tropical diseases.
The human cost of these cuts would be profound. The impact of last year’s sequester on global health programs made that painfully clear. But, beyond the humanitarian dimension, there are strong pragmatic reasons to maintain and even increase our investment in global health.
We already know that investing in health has tremendous returns. For instance, the global effort to control and eliminate neglected tropical diseases that infect over a billion of the world’s poorest people is scaling up–and with dramatic results. A person treated will not suffer severe symptoms, such as blindness and disfigurement. They can stay in school, find work, and provide for their families. The cost of treating and preventing the most common neglected tropical diseases is just $0.50 per person annually. This is a small investment with large and immediate returns. Provided adequate funding can be found, we will succeed in eliminating these diseases as public health threats by the end of the decade.
While the United States weighs the value of its investment in this and other areas of global health, the world community is stepping up. Just last week, pharmaceutical companies, philanthropists, and international leaders committed more than $240 million in new resources to the fight against neglected tropical diseases.
The United States must not back away from its global leadership on these issues. President Obama and leaders in Congress, who have found new inspiration in Pope Francis, must act on his call “to remember the people, especially the poor, who are affected by the economic decisions we make.”
The Holy Father is right: governments must work together to protect the poor. And as the richest country on earth, the United States has a moral obligation to lead on global health. Though we spend far less than one percent of the federal budget on global health programs, these funds save lives while strengthening America’s security and economic interests abroad. An investment in the fight against neglected tropical diseases creates a crucial rung on the ladder out of extreme poverty for hundreds of millions of people.
The Catholic Church has said it again and again: the federal budget is a moral document that represents the priorities of a nation. While Washington might consider these cuts a small sliver, the poor who benefit from these programs know otherwise. They are the ones who will be disproportionately impacted by a budget that cuts global health funding.
Pope Francis was recently named the most influential voice in Washington. Let’s hope this is true. If our leaders follow his example, the poor will see the dollars and cents of moral leadership.
And that is an investment worth making.
Emily Conron coordinates faith-based outreach for END7, a campaign of the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases at the Sabin Vaccine Institute, and is a member of the Young Leaders Council of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.