WASHINGTON (CN) – Global health programs are good foreign policy, former President Bill Clinton and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday. “If people think you care whether their children live or die,” Clinton said, “you don’t have to send our young people off to war as often.”
The two said health programs are a relatively cheap way to bolster national security.
“We live in an interdependent world in which we have learned the hard way that no matter how brilliantly our forces perform, we cannot kill, jail or occupy all of our adversaries,” Clinton told the senators on the Foreign Relations Committee.
The United States already provides more than a quarter of global health funding, the largest share of any nation, while spending only about a quarter of a percent of its budget on such programs.
Between 2003 and 2008, the United States spent $4.5 billion a year on global health projects, but that figure is growing. In 2009, the United States spent more than $8 billion, and the Obama administration has proposed raising spending to more than $10 billion a year.
On the other hand, the United States has allocated $900 billion to the war in Iraq so far.
“This is a very good deal,” Clinton said of the health programs. “These things work.”
While they acknowledged budget constraints, Clinton and Gates – who both head separate global health organizations – urged continued American funding to combat disease in poor nations as a cost-effective means to protect against the spread of HIV and other diseases to the United States, to build relations in a world that is inclined to dislike it, and to help poor nations become self-sustainable.
AIDS is the leading cause of death for women of reproductive age throughout the world. Malaria kills 900,000 people each year. And 8.8 million children die from treatable or preventable conditions or malnutrition.
The influential witnesses said that condoms, education, vaccinations and mosquito nets can go a long way in saving lives.
Clinton said that people who witness American efforts to help them survive “cut you a lot of slack.”
Gates joined him by imparting some personal wisdom. “If you’re rich enough, there will be some resentment no matter what,” he said to laughter.
But he noted that Africans tend to appreciate the United States because of its visible humanitarian role on the continent.
Gates also said such programs benefit the health of Americans. “Diseases don’t know any boundaries,” he said.
Gates also approached global health funding from a moral angle. He said that saving the life of a person in a developing country costs only 2 percent of saving the life of someone in a developed country. Assuming each life has the same value, he said, global health programs are efficient.
He stressed the direct benefits of such funds, saying that the deaths of children under the age of five dropped from 20 million world-wide in 1960 to less than nine million as a result of foreign aid, and he held that global health programs are even more accountable than national programs like Medicaid.
“This money, you can say, ‘we spent this many dollars. We saved this many lives,'” he said.
And improved health results in slower population growth, which allows societies to invest more in education, Gates said.
Clinton likewise stressed the importance of working towards self-sufficiency. “We are moving away from a dependency model of aid,” Clinton said. He pointed to genocide-ravaged Rwanda as an example of the long-term success of global aid, saying income per person rose from $268 dollars a year shortly after the 1994 war to its current level of $1,150 a year.
He said the Rwanda government hopes to function without foreign aid by 2020.
Gates heads the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation and has pledged $10 billion to research an HIV vaccine and to distribute it among the world’s poorest nations.
The William J. Clinton Foundation provides treatment to more than 2.4 million AIDS patients, representing more than half of the treatments in the world’s low and median-income nations.
Clinton is also serving as the United Nations special envoy to earthquake-battered Haiti.