Alternative AU Presidents Debate calls on leaders to invest in saving lives

African governments must keep their promises to invest in healthcare, a coalition of organizations from across the continent said today, at the launch of the "Alternative Presidents Debate" at the African Union Summit in Kampala.

In the Summit's first ever stunt of its kind, activists wore masks to play the roles of some of Africa's foremost leaders and then debated how to solve the continent's health crises. With the real leaders debating behind closed doors at the Summit, this was the only forum where ‘Heads of State' reported back directly to their citizens.

During the three days of the official Heads of State summit, up to 40,000 African women and children will die needless and preventable deaths. In 2001 AU member states pledged to invest at least 15% of national budgets to improve healthcare for citizens. Yet last year only six of 53 countries have kept this promise. Meanwhile, 132 out of every 1,000 African newborns and children die before their fifth birthday.

"Urgently increase healthcare spending"

"This light-hearted event has a serious message. When the real Presidents speak they make promises that they do not keep. We need AU governments to do what they have promised and urgently increase their healthcare spending. Millions of African lives are at stake," said Irungu Houghton, Pan Africa Director at Oxfam, who played the role of Bingu Wa Mutharika, the President of Malawi and current Chair of the AU.

Other "Presidents" featured in the debate included Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Jacob Zuma of South Africa, Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, and Ian Khama of Bostwana.

These countries have mixed results on healthcare. Botswana and Malawi have reached the 15% target – although Malawi has slipped again recently. Nigeria ranks 51st of 53 states, having invested less than 4% of its national budget on healthcare. South Africa, Liberia and Uganda have been worryingly vague about meeting their commitments, and both currently spend less than 10%, with Uganda spending just $6 per person on improving health.

"Investing in healthcare means investing in Africa's future. At the moment too many governments prioritize military and security spending instead of saving the lives of their citizens. Real development cannot be achieved without a healthy nation," said Bactrin Killingo, ITPC Africa Program Manager of International Treatment Preparedness Coalition.

Preventable deaths

The main theme of the AU Summit – maternal and child health – was also featured in the debate. Over half the world's child and maternal deaths occur in Africa, with 4.5 million children under five and 265,000 pregnant women dying each year across the continent. The vast majority of these deaths could be prevented with access to very basic health services and skilled attendance at birth.

Over the past two decades, the number of deaths during pregnancy in Africa has decreased by only 5% – far less than the 75% reduction Heads of State have committed to. Untreated HIV among women causes 61,000 maternal deaths every year, and is the leading killer of women of reproductive age worldwide. In Uganda, the host of the Summit, domestic investment in the health budget actually decreased in the current 2010/11 budget. About 190,000 Ugandan children under five die each year, mainly from complications at birth, pneumonia, diarrhea and malaria.

The coalition called on African leaders and international donors to adopt innovative ways of funding new investment in health services, such as taxes on financial transactions, mobile phone use and air travel.

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Notes to editors

As of 2009, the six countries that have met the 15% target are: Rwanda, Botswana, Niger, Malawi, Zambia and Burkina Faso. However, recent figures suggest this number could be down to three this year as some governments slip backwards.

The coalition behind the events includes: Fair Play for Africa, Oxfam International, SAFAIDS, Save the Children, White Ribbon Alliance, World AIDS Campaign, Action Aid, ISIS-WICCE, the Uganda Network of AIDS Service Organisations (UNASO), the East African Network of AIDS Service Organisations (EANASO), and Urgent Action Fund.

Contact information

Photos from the stunt are available. For more information or to arrange interviews with the participants or coalition members, contact:

Alun McDonald, Oxfam, in Kampala on +254 73 666 6663