The EU is analysing the aid funding gap left by Donald Trump’s decision to ban US federal funding for NGOs providing birth control support or abortions in developing countries, Development Commissioner Neven Mimica told EURACTIV.com in an exclusive interview.
Neven Mimica is Croatia’s first European Commissioner since the country’s EU accession in 2013. He has served as minister of European integration and as deputy prime minister. He is affiliated to the Social Democratic Party of Croatia.
Mimica spoke to EURACTIV’s Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.
People sometimes misunderstand the importance of polio eradication as very few cases are reported and the polio-endemic countries are also very few: Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan. But failure to stop polio could result in as many as 200,000 new cases every year, scientists warn. There was a surprising outbreak in Ukraine in 2015, so Europe is not safe. And it would cost many billions to fight back if polio was not finally wiped out. What role is the EU playing in polio eradication? How much does it invest and who are its partners?
As you rightly pointed out, today’s travel patterns potentially put us all at risk of public health emergencies. Until every country reaches the full immunisation coverage against polio, new outbreaks can happen. This is particularly the case in countries at risk.
The position of the European Commission is clear: in the 21st century no one should suffer or die from polio or any other diseases which can be prevented with safe, effective and available vaccines.
So far this year, five cases of polio infection have been confirmed; two in Afghanistan and three in Pakistan. A number of countries remain vulnerable.
A few weeks ago, I pledged on behalf of the European Commission €55 million for polio eradication. This amount comes on top of the €200 million we already provided to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative between 2003 and 2015.
This fits in well with our broader efforts to strengthen the overall health systems in our partner countries. We help to improve the availability of qualified health workers, the provision of affordable medicines and adequate financing of the health sector.
To eradicate polio, vaccination campaigns have to be combined with efforts to raise public awareness about the disease and the effectiveness of vaccines. To achieve this, we are working closely with local authorities, media, churches, traditional authorities and communities to address people’s concerns and pay particular attention to countries that remain vulnerable, such as Cameroon, Ethiopia, Somalia or South Sudan, to name just a few.
You recently met with Bill Gates, who is indeed very active on polio eradication. How important is the synergy with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF)? What do you concretely do together? I suspect this is more than the usual cooperation when the EU gives funds and an NGO on the ground provides services?
Of course, with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as with other partners, we aim to coordinate our interventions, in line with the principles set out by the International Health Partnership, which is a global initiative aimed at fostering cooperation among governments, development agencies and civil society organisations on health issues. The fight against deadly diseases cannot afford uncoordinated interventions or duplication.
Polio eradication is one of the top priorities of the Gates Foundation, which is also a major supporter of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. The Gates Foundation contributes technical and financial resources to accelerate targeted vaccination campaigns, community mobilisation, and routine immunisations, and to encourage partners to improve their polio surveillance and outbreak response.
Our partnership with the Gates Foundation is also important in the framework of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI), to which the European Union also contributes significantly. Through the board of these multilateral initiatives, we work with the Foundation, as well as with other partners, to find sustainable and efficient issues to the challenge of health systems and immunisation in particular.
I have noticed that the USA as a country was until now a big donour to GAVI, the international organisation based in Switzerland and active across the world. Is there a risk that this organisation, and others, will face a financial gap, and are there any contingency plans?
The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI) aims to target an additional 200 million children by 2020. Together, we want to save the lives of five million children per year worldwide. The EU has supported GAVI since 2003 by committing around €300 million, including the pledge of €200 million for the 2016-2020 period. This is one of the many examples of the European Union assuming its responsibility as a strong global actor, as we have done for more than 60 years.
We are the key provider of development assistance and humanitarian aid around the world, with €75.5 billion in 2016 alone. Our responsibility in the world and our priorities are what determines our external agenda – not a possible response to what other actors are doing or not doing, be it the United States or others. Whenever our partners choose to reduce their level of ambition, we, of course, regret that. But the European Union will continue to be engaged and assume leadership on global issues.
The Trump Administration doesn’t want to support family planning projects or programmes. Some countries, like the Netherlands or Belgium, have said they will increase theirs. Again, are there any contingency plans from the Commission?
Our commitment to gender equality and women’s and girls’ rights remains very high; this includes also their sexual and reproductive health and rights.
For starters, gender equality is a matter of human rights and human dignity. But at the same time, we know that there can be no real development in any sphere of life without equal opportunities between men and women.
In order to support women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights – which includes family planning – we strengthen our partner countries’ health systems. For example, we help them to improve health care facilities and train health personnel or to provide equipment and essential medicines. We also provide technical assistance and policy advice to governments.
Supporting civil society organisations that work on sexual and reproductive health is also key to enable them to provide information, education and counselling to young people. Preventing sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS, and supporting local civil society organisations to act in these fields are of course an important part of that.
Strengthening women’s access to family planning is immensely important: worldwide, around 225 million women are in need of modern contraception. And each year, more than 300,000 women die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes – almost all of them in developing countries. The results we achieved in the past are the best encouragement to keep our ambitions high: since 2004, our EU support has helped for almost 17 million consultations on reproductive health to take place, and over 7.5 million births have been attended by skilled health personnel.
In light of the announcements of the US administration you mention, we are currently analysing the actual needs of women on the ground and the dimension of funding gaps. This will be the basis to generate additional funding from the EU, together with our partners.
I am strongly committed to doing everything in my power to make sure that these needs will be met. May I remind you that in 2001, when the US Administration decided to reinstate the so-called Mexico City Policy, the Commission increased its funding by an additional €32 million and thereby filled the financial gap [the Mexico City policy is a United States government policy that blocks US federal funding for NGOs organisations that provide abortion counselling or advocate to decriminalize abortion].
For the years to come, working for gender equality will remain absolutely critical. Fighting violence against women and girls is also very high on our agenda – it is shocking that today still one in three women over the age of 15 have experienced physical or sexual violence by a partner in their lifetime.
I am personally committed to helping put an end to this. We are for example currently working on an important initiative to eliminate all forms of violence and harmful practices against women and girls together with the United Nations, which we will officially launch later this year.