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Innovative vision

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    Bill Gates gave the G20 summit a workable plan to boost development around the world.

    What a shame that the latest lurch of the financial crisis in Greece and the eurozone overshadowed all else at last week's G20 summit in Cannes, France. For on the agenda was a brief but important report on ways to boost funding for development, research and innovation in health and agriculture. If implemented, its suggestions would stimulate innovation and go a long way towards helping to alleviate poverty, hunger and disease. The report came from computer-tycoon-turned-philanthropist Bill Gates, and although the typically vague final G20 communiqué gave his suggestions only brief mention, that they feature at all in the current climate is a notable achievement.

    Gates, the first private individual to address a G20 summit, pleaded for countries not to let the financial crisis cause them to renege on their existing pledges, which would generate an additional US$80 billion annually from 2015 onwards.

    Some programmes, such as the GAVI Alliance — formerly the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation — have seen pledges increase this year (see http://go.nature.com/qlldf4), and donors must follow through with the cash. Others have not been so lucky. Donations to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, for example, last year fell far short of its funding target (see Nature 467, 767; 2010). And the comprehensive Global Funding of Innovation for Neglected Diseases (G-Finder) report, due next month, is expected to say that most donors slashed funding for neglected-disease research and development last year — causing an overall fall of more than $100 million, or more than 5%. The risk is that the financial crisis could roll back the huge progress that has been made in both funding and outcomes for global health and research since neglected diseases returned to the international agenda in the mid-1990s — and also stymie a recent resurgence of interest in agricultural research and development (R&D) for developing nations.

    “Cash flow between rich and poor countries is not a one-way street.”

    To combat this threat, Gates rightly emphasized the urgent need for new funding mechanisms to boost development and make it less vulnerable to financial turmoil. And he made a compelling case for measures that, between them, could potentially raise more than $100 billion a year. Gates also put his finger on a key point: cash flow between rich and poor countries is not a one-way street of aid from donors to recipients. Many poorer nations have substantial natural resources, the revenues from which exceed that of aid. Yet countries are sometimes given raw deals by foreign companies exploiting those resources, and revenues can also end up in the bank accounts of corrupt public officials. The result is a haemorrhaging of financial resources, some of which could otherwise be spent on building labs, hospitals and sanitation systems, training researchers and doctors, or buying bed nets and drugs.

    To tackle this, Gates called on the G20 countries to embrace the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a World Bank-backed scheme, launched in 2002, to oblige companies and countries to make public the terms of oil, gas and mineral deals in order to better monitor both whether the deals are fair and where that money goes. The sums involved are potential game changers that could also transform neglected diseases and agricultural R&D. Gates points out that, at peak production, Uganda's oil reserves are estimated to generate $2 billion annually, which is almost as much as the country's entire national budget of $3 billion. However, the confidentiality of the terms of deals with firms makes it impossible to track either whether countries are getting good deals, or where all the cash goes.

    The EITI is gaining traction, and teeth, with US President Barack Obama announcing in September that the United States would adopt legislation to make it EITI compliant, and the European Union is considering following suit. But Gates is right to call on all G20 countries to endorse the EITI, and to force companies listed on their stock exchanges to disclose the royalties they pay to governments — and for that measure to be extended to resources such as land and timber.

    Gates also called for a share of sovereign wealth funds to be invested in infrastructure, and lent his support to proposals for a small tax on tobacco and financial transactions, and a carbon tax on aviation and shipping fuel, which together could raise at least tens of billions of dollars. Financial-transaction taxes already exist in several countries, and, as Gates said, “are clearly technically feasible”. Likewise, UNITAID, an international organization that helps to accelerate development and scale-up of access to treatments for HIV and AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, is largely financed by an airline tax paid by its member states.

    Gates deserves great credit for highlighting these issues and helping to keep them on the international agenda. Research leaders and politicians must press for them to remain there, and for action to follow. It would be a fitting result if the man whose operating systems forced the world to learn the keyboard sequence CTRL-ALT-DEL can spark a much-needed reboot of funding of research for development.

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    Innovative vision. Nature 479, 149–150 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/479149b

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