As Western donors abandon Africa’s cancer crisis, Muslim nations are filling the gap

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In the West, cancer is a disease. In Africa, it’s a death sentence. More Africans are killed by non-communicable diseases like cancer and international funding for cancer research in Africa has been practically non-existent. This situation made worse by an international humanitarian system that is at breaking point. This is likely to be made worse by the expected cuts to U.S. aid spending in the 2019 budget.

The void created by Western donors’ abandonment of Africa is being filled by a newly invigorated humanitarian bloc: the Muslim world. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation — the “Muslim UN” with 57 member states —  is working to fill funding gaps and save African lives.

Cervix and breast cancer are the most common cancers in Sub-Saharan Africa, meaning that the disease is a silent epidemic that disproportionately kills women. And the fight back is being led by women — first ladies from OIC African Member States met in Burkina Faso last week, as part of an effort to increase Muslim-world awareness and funding of Africa’s cancer problem.

The women and their colleagues from across the Islamic world worked to shed light on cancer, which has never been at the forefront of previous aid efforts in Africa. This unconscious bias in the industry is almost an accident of history: the current generation of aid and development leaders came of age during Live Aid in 1985. The event — and subsequent campaign — focused on the acute danger of the Ethiopian famine.

It set the tone for African aid and fundraising efforts for a generation, “people are starving now, they must be helped now.” A starving child (perhaps with a swollen belly due to tragic Kwashiorkor) will perhaps move a western audience more than an African woman quietly dying of a preventable cervical cancer.

This shock factor has continued through to recent months and years: the West African Ebola epidemic received much more media and political attention than any non-communicable disease ever could.

But a death is a death. African lives must always matter, whether they are lost to something dramatic or mundane.

In this context, it is perhaps unsurprising that since its founding in 1961, only a minority of USAID’s budget (currently $22.7 billion) has been spent on health care. And only a part of that has gone on non-communicable diseases like cancer.

It is understandable that Americans, like all citizens, want a justification for where their aid money goes.

For a smart aid strategy, all nations — including America — must consider the prevention of diseases like cancer in the developing world, including Africa.

This is in America — and other Western nations’ — best interest. Better conditions in the developing world reduce the immigration burden on developed countries. And improved health care and life expectancy increases the “opportunity cost” of engaging in civil unrest or war – the kinds of situations that often require longer, riskier and more expensive (in dollars and sometimes in lives) interventions.

Another path for America’s aid operations, particularly in the face of potentially smaller budgets, is to work with new partners to deliver precision healthcare aid — a few researchers or a small specialized clinic, rather than the more sprawling, expensive aid projects of the past.

These partners could include new humanitarian aid blocs, including pan-Islamic humanitarianism. Significant aid by individual Muslim-majority states is not a new occurrence: the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are some of the highest foreign aid donors in terms of percentage of gross national income.

What is novel is many of these countries acting in a coordinated way to target otherwise neglected issues, under the leadership of an umbrella organisation like the OIC.

In humanitarian terms, the OIC is sometimes called “the Muslim UN”. As the UN’s role shifts, perhaps they can be a new key partner on the ground for many Western donor countries, including the United States.

Ambassador Naeem Khan is assistant secretary general of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) the second-largest intergovernmental body in the world, after the UN. Previously he was the Pakistani ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

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