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A steep learning curve ahead for Peter Sands in the SDG era

By Kristof Decoster
on March 12, 2018

It always surprises me when people who are obviously at least three times smarter than I am fail to see the blatantly obvious, even if at the same time you somehow understand it, given the corners these people are frequenting and their background.

No, I won’t go here into the current commotion around the Global Fund’s murky partnership with Heineken et al, others have done that far more expertly and eloquently. (still think Heineken sells something that looks like beer but actually tastes like water, but let’s not go into that discussion : )

I’d rather like Peter Sands (and the Global Fund board) to question their mantra “”The Global Fund is a strong believer in the power of public-private partnerships in order to accelerate progress.”  Especially in the current international environment. Not that they will listen, but hey, I can only try : )

Sands said a few interesting things in last week’s Lancet Perspective dedicated to him.

It’s worth re-quoting some of these remarks in full, before explaining a bit more in detail what I mean:

On the importance of ‘winning the battle on the 3 diseases’ in the SDG era: “Sands believes The Global Fund’s objectives should not only be framed around saving millions more lives but also on how to win. “How do we get epidemiological control of these three diseases in the spirit of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 3 by 2030, and what will it take?”, he asks”.

On the current global environment: “…A major challenge for Sands is the turbulent global political environment in which populism and nationalism threaten global cooperation, and the subsequent decline in global health funding. “We need to be better at articulating the case for eliminating these three epidemics, not only the moral arguments, but the strong economic case, and reinforce the link with the broader health security agenda. …”

On partnerships with the private sector“…the global health community needs to engage the private sector more rather than less. And must do so more effectively than it has in the past. Because if we really want to achieve the SDGs and build more resilient health systems, we need to partner with the private sector to leverage their resources and their capabilities to innovate…”


It’s obvious that these issues are, to a large extent, linked.  And not in the way Peter Sands (and many others among the global health’s “Who’s Who” ) seem to think.

On the very day that the FT reported that multinationals pay lower taxes than a decade ago, it should be clear for all that as long as this remains so, and corporate actors thus fail to pay fair taxes, populism has a field day, both on the left and the right. Among others, because this implies that basic services in many countries don’t get sufficient funding.

While I generally tend to side with left-wing populists, I’m enough of a political realist to fear that if global taxation continues the way it is, right-wing xenophobic populism will ultimately prevail, if not at the ballot box, then at least in terms of pushing the so called ‘centre’ towards even more right-wing policies.

While I admit that “the private sector” is very diverse, still, what kind of ‘partnerships’ does Peter Sands have in mind, exactly, with “partners” who rip off common citizens (who tend to pay their due taxes) on a near daily basis? Put more diplomatically, the corporate sector has a massive legitimacy issue when it comes to taxes, and for good reason. As long as this legitimacy issue is not fixed, most “partnerships” will at least feel tainted as well. Even if they’re not directly related to dodgy corporate sectors, like Big Alcohol or Big Soda.

In my humble opinion, the only way forward, long term, is if we somehow manage to move the ‘centre’ towards the left again in our countries, instead of to the right (which is happening now, unfortunately). And that, I’m afraid, requires first of all fair corporate taxation, globally, nationally, at every level. In the absence of this, the already fertile ground for right-wing populism & other alt-right movements will only become more fertile, so called “centre” governments will move further in a more xenophobic direction, and in the end it will be “game over” for global solidarity, public financing of global public goods, including sustainable funding for the Global Fund’s priority diseases.

I know, Peter Sands & other Jim Kims believe more in “leveraging” the private sector and nudging their billions and other resources so that they help achieve the SDG goals & targets. My point is: if little or nothing is done about fair taxation at the same time, the  political backlash in many countries will become so huge that the ‘international liberal order’ will become even more a joke than it already is now. I fail to see how that can be a good thing for the Global Fund, long term. Or how the SDG battle can be ‘won’ in such an environment.

So, just like Weinstein has been called out by some of his very (brave) colleagues, Sands, Gates, Kim, Berkley & others in the global health community who are close to the financial & corporate sector should take the lead in making this case for progressive & fair taxation, at the World Economic Forum and all other high-level venues where they are invited.

No need to be diplomatic.  Hollywood actresses have also dropped diplomacy in their – equally justified – case. If Sands (and others from the global elite) fail to do that, their world will collapse, sooner than we all think. What will replace it won’t be very nice. And I’m afraid the Global Fund won’t be part of it.

It’s still early days, and I hope Sands is a quick learner. The man is certainly smart enough.

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