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The Business of Giving

Exploring philanthropy, non-profits and socially motivated business, from the Gates Foundation to your donation. A fresh look at the economy of good intentions.

September 24, 2009 at 8:42 AM

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Making a case for foreign aid

Posted by Kristi Heim

Is the $8 billion the U.S. spends on foreign aid for global health worth it?

Bill and Melinda Gates say they've seen proof that it is. They're starting a new campaign today called "Living Proof" to convince Americans that their money has been a good investment, saving millions of people in developing countries.

Their message is that those children and adults are surviving and leading more productive lives, "living proof" that U.S-supported initiatives to fight malaria, AIDS, and other diseases are working.

The Gates Foundation has started a major ad campaign that will run over the next five weeks, aimed primarily at policy makers in Washington DC.

Cynthia Lewis, a senior program officer at the foundation, said the couple was struck by the disconnect between the optimism and progress they saw on their trips and the pessimism they were hearing about when they came home.

"When we talk to people in America they don't know where their money has gone or that it's working," achieving major declines in child mortality, she said.

Following media images of crying and emaciated children that helped the world see the problems of poverty and disease, this campaign will show the other side, featuring people like a woman with HIV in Ethiopia who gets treatment, starts her own barber shop and teaches others about HIV/AIDS while they're sitting in her chair.

"For quite a number of years people who advocate have focused on the need," said Iain Simpson, a global health spokesman for the foundation. "That's been a very effective campaign. What we've forgotten collectively to do is come back and say these investments we asked you to make have had a fantastic impact on peoples lives."

The U.S. government spent about $30 billion on foreign aid since 2008, about 1 percent of the U.S. budget, and of the total foreign aid, about $8 billion goes toward health programs.

The U.S. approach to foreign aid has been criticized by various groups, including Global Washington, which asserts that it needs to conform to local priorities and be more transparent.

The programs that will be highlighted by the Gates Foundation include the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which is credited with saving an estimated 1.2 million people by expanding access to HIV prevention and treatment.

Programs supported by U.S. foreign aid delivered 88 million insecticide-treated bednets to protect young children from malaria, life-saving TB treatment programs in 41 developing countries, malaria prevention and treatment for 32 million people and fortified food for tens of millions of children in developing countries, according to the campaign.

Lewis acknowledged it was a difficult case to make to Americans even before the economic downturn hit.

"We think if more Americans learn about progress in global health, they'll be inspired to maintain these investments--even in difficult economic times--so that we can do even more," Melinda Gates said in a statement.

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