Stop Taxing the Fight Against Malaria

Yoweri Museveni & Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete | 26 Jul 2010
Wall Street Journal Europe
This month Uganda has the honor of hosting the annual meeting of the African Union, which brings together more than 40 heads of state to discuss issues of critical importance to our continent. More than ever before, Africa needs strategic leadership, vision and courage to address the challenges we face. We must harness Africa's enormous potential, opportunities, and resources for the development, prosperity and well-being of its people.

One of the greatest challenges we face is malaria. And in this area, strategic leadership in part means getting government obstructions out of the way.

Malaria causes illness and productivity loss for close to 200 million people in Africa annually. The scourge claims the lives of more than 800,000 Africans each year, most of whom are babies and mothers.

Over the past decade, an unprecedented effort has been launched to defeat malaria, supported by funding from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria; the World Bank; key bilateral partners, and other private sources around the world. Thanks to this funding, a huge volume of rapid diagnostic tests, life-saving medicines, and nearly 350 million mosquito nets will be delivered to Africa by the end of 2010. Other efforts, such as spraying households with insecticides, are being scaled up as part of a comprehensive attack on the disease.

African governments are also stepping up the fight against malaria. The African Leaders Malaria Alliance (ALMA), representing 28 heads of state, recently established a regional effort to facilitate cost-effective bulk procurement of mosquito nets, working together and with UNICEF. This approach will allow the accelerated delivery of nets to the countries that need them most.

We must now commit to overcoming barriers to malaria control and treatment, and a key area here is tax and tariff removal. Most anti-malaria commodities are currently produced outside of Africa, and when the ships that transport nets, medicines, and other essential health products arrive in African ports, their cargoes are often subjected to taxes and tariffs that absorb precious funds, reducing the volume of health goods that can be purchased, and creating inordinate delays in distribution.

The problem with imposing taxes and tariffs on essential anti-malaria commodities is that they hurt our poorest citizens, who cannot afford to purchase nets and medicines in the private sector, and must rely on public distribution. Essentially, imposing taxes and tariffs on malaria drugs and commodities taxes Africa' s already fragile health system and makes malaria prevention and treatment less available to the poor.

Evidence from our countries—Uganda and Tanzania—strongly suggests that removing taxes and tariffs strengthens the fight against malaria and benefits the poor the most. Several years ago, when we removed taxes and tariffs on all anti-malaria commodities, the cost of mosquito nets sold in local markets decreased, local demand for nets increased, and more small businesses entered the market to produce and supply these essential commodities. Since then, our countries have increased access to anti-malaria commodities and have become significant manufacturers of insecticide-treated nets that are exported to other African countries. Tax and tariff removal can, therefore, be good for Africa's people and good for African entrepreneurs.

Careful attention must be given to the way in which taxes and tariffs are removed, however. Some countries have opted to grant waivers or exemptions for donated goods, but the reality is that obtaining these waivers can be time-consuming and expensive. In some countries, legislation requires that exemptions be renewed every year, and this process can cause months of delay. Removing taxes and tariffs altogether is by far the most equitable and effective solution.

Along with tax and tariff removal, malaria-endemic countries must pay attention to improving customs procedures so that public-health commodities are correctly identified when they arrive at ports. This is important not only to ease the flow of goods into countries, but also to maintain important quality standards as we battle the global problem of counterfeiting and sub-standard products that can lead to drug resistance.

If African countries are to achieve universal access to critical health-care commodities and meet the goal of reducing malaria-related deaths to near zero by 2015, we need to take definitive steps now. Tax and tariff removal is one of the steps that we should take, and doing so will help African leaders demonstrate the depth of their commitment to ending malaria.

The global fight against malaria over the past few years has redefined the standards and expectations that we apply to development assistance. We have set measurable targets that we are working hard to achieve, and we are seeing great reductions in malaria thanks to more strategic applications of funding and greater accountability for donor spending. Just as international donors have increased their commitments, it is time for African leaders to intensify theirs by removing costly and counterproductive obstacles to effective malaria control. Through effective partnership, we can give Africa's children a malaria-free future.