UNITAID: How traveling by plane might just save a child’s life

March 28, 2014 Updated: April 23, 2016

Globalization doesn’t seem to have a lot of allies these days. Largely blamed for the near-collapse of the world economy, it’s easy to understand why the word is anathema for some. But what if the forces underpinning globalization could be put to good use and fund the global fight against disease? What if the mantra of financiers can also become the mantra of philanthropists? The efforts of UNITAID, a UN-backed initiative chaired by Philippe Douste-Blazy, offers a compelling solution.

Established in 2006 by the French and Brazilian government, and since backed Chile, Norway, the United Kingdom, UNITAID is meant to further the ambitious goals set by the UN in 2000, specifically to reduce child mortality, combat disease and improve maternal health. It became increasingly clear that development aid alone pledged by states wouldn’t be enough to tackle the enormous challenges posed by attaining these goals. 

Using some innovative financing tools and the perennial laws of supply and demand, UNITAID seems to have found the answer, having already helped millions of people from the least developed countries in the world. Surprisingly, all this has been achieved thanks to a small, $1 levy placed on all economy class flights departing from the airports of Cameroon, Chile, Congo, France, Madagascar, Mali, Morocco, Mauritius, Niger and Korea. The scheme worked so well that Bill Clinton even called UNITAID “France’s gift to the world”.

In a time of austerity and reduced economic output, governments have severely decreased their budgets going to aid. Through this almost negligible levy, UNITAID has managed to raise funds without diverting taxpayer money from national budgets, tapping into a previously unexploited resource. The contribution, paid by millions of passengers, stands at some $2 billion collected over the past six years. This hefty sum has gone into financing research targeted on fighting against malaria, tuberculosis and HIV.

Now, the simple act of catching a plane has turned passengers into contributors to the cause of saving lives. Statistics show that every contribution helps save two children suffering from malaria.

UNITAID’s most impressive achievement comes from its substantial power to lower prices across the board for many pharmaceuticals that are out of reach for lower income individuals. How? Because the bulk of its budget goes towards creating an international drug purchasing facility. With its sizeable purchasing power, UNITAID has negotiated price reductions for treatments and has accelerated the pace at which products are put on the market, increasing the availability of high quality medicines. Some antiretrovirals have seen price drops of 80%, essentially tripling the number of patients that can be treated with the same amount of money.

UNITAID has also opened up new means of treatment. Before 2006, drug companies did not produce child-friendly medicine for HIV since there was no viable market for them, meaning that the investment would not be covered by demand since most patients couldn’t have afforded the drugs. The organization gave those manufacturers the incentive to invest in research by signing long-term agreements. As a direct result, eight out of ten children living with HIV is now treated by UNITAID.

The organization has caught the attention of several major private donors, such as the Bill Clinton Foundation or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the latter making total contributions of over $50 million. 

The organization has far more ambitious goals in mind. Through its chairman, Philippe Douste-Blazy, a former French Minister for Foreign Affairs, UNITAID has pushed for expanding the field of innovative financing to other fields that benefit from the invisible forces of globalization. It has become one of the most vocal supporters of a European tax on financial transaction, for example, which could generate funds in excess of $30 billion according to a report published by a consultancy.  These funds could be used in a variety of ways, including for humanitarian causes. This idea will be discussed during a large dinner held in Paris on April 1st, where Bill Gates will be the keynote speaker.

It remains to be seen if the political will to expand UNITAID’s mandate can be found. What is clear though is that fighting against extreme poverty and its consequences can find allies and funding in the most unlikely of places. Here, the groundbreaking results of establishing the small tax on airline tickets have unearthed new channels and avenues of givers. After finance, transport, IT and communications, maybe solidarity can be globalized as well?