Exclusive: Abu Dhabi to launch campaign to reach 'last mile' on preventable disease

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed delivers a keynote speech during the Mohamed Bin Zayed Majlis for Future Generations summit at Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre. Photo by: Ryan Carter / Crown Prince Court - Abu Dhabi

NEW YORK — The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi will host a Global Health Forum later this year that will serve as a “stepping out” for the United Arab Emirates’ role as a major player in eliminating neglected tropical disease, Devex has learned.

The November 15 event — in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carter Center — will serve as a culmination of past UAE efforts in combating diseases such as polio and malaria, as well as a launch point for an ambitious new push to lead the fight going forward, Dr. Maha Barakat, the director general of the Health Authority in Abu Dhabi, told Devex in an interview.

The forum, and subsequent assistance, will focus on as many as 20 NTDs and preventable diseases, including polio, malaria, Guinea worm, and river blindness. It will “cement the crown prince’s leadership and convening power for a new elimination agenda to combat the world’s deadliest diseases,” an advisor to the partnership told Devex.

In anticipation of the broader campaign, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed on Monday announced a $5 million three-year commitment to the Roll Back Malaria Partnership. Barakat is also on the board of RBM.

“This really is in preparation for the event in November,” Barakat told Devex. “The perspective of [Sheikh Mohammed] in the UAE is that no one should die from preventable disease.”

The new initiative will work around a three-pronged strategy: to keep preventable diseases at the top of the political agenda, maintain the progress made so far, and raise funding levels. Barakat said that she hoped the November event will be as successful as the 2013 Global Vaccine Summit, also hosted by Abu Dhabi, that raised $4 billion in commitments for polio.

Abu Dhabi occupies a unique position as both an emerging market economy and a regionally savvy actor that can leverage its political capital and goodwill to the fight in challenging regions — perhaps in ways that Western donors may be unable to. The new campaign signals a broader strategy to leverage these competitive advantages in constructing its foreign aid.

“The UAE is able to get stuff done in Pakistan that others aren’t able to because of their relationships there,” said Hassan Damluji, head of Middle East relations at the Gates Foundation.

“I think what you’re going to see the UAE stepping out is — yes, putting money into these things — but there’s a strategic focus on infectious disease and getting the job done, [and] also about developing expertise and a hands-on approach to how we do this. I think that’s where the UAE wants to see their development aid go,” Damluji added.

The right partner

Sheikh Mohammed is a longstanding donor to polio elimination, and now seeks to expand that philanthropy and involvement to a host of other neglected tropical diseases. His focus on NTDs is motivated by his father’s role as a major donor with the Carter Center in fighting Guinea worm, said the advisor. There is also an understanding that the UAE may have a strategic advantage in combating some of the most persistent pockets of diseases, which linger largely in countries in its region or with which the UAE has significant relationships.

The largely unreported role that the UAE has played in fighting polio offers an example of how Abu Dhabi might envision and expand upon its role going forward, said Damluji.

In addition to providing funding, in 2013 the UAE began a series of efforts to reach unimmunized children in Pakistan, where the polio campaign had run into political challenges. Polio workers were at best distrusted and at worst targeted in endemic rural areas, such as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

The UAE is home to several million Pakistani expatriate laborers, and Abu Dhabi recorded a series of public service campaigns in local languages to play on flights in and out of Pakistan urging vaccination of children.

A year later, the UAE began working directly on vaccine delivery inside Pakistan, getting the country’s military involved in administering and protecting vaccines. It leveraged its political relationships, as well as the goodwill it had built through years of other aid work in Pakistan.

Prior to those efforts, local communities had asked health workers, “why are you coming here and vaccinating against polio? We don’t have a road, we don’t have a school,” said Damluji. “When the UAE showed up, these are guys who had built a road, and they said now we’re coming to vaccinate their kids. That was really transformative and millions of kids were vaccinated that way.”

Strategy of engagement

The new initiative will focus on promoting innovations, both scientific and administrative, in reaching the last mile on key diseases. The November forum is expected to include discussion of advances in ways to combat malaria, as well as public-private partnership possibilities, Barakat said.

“This partnership makes a lot of sense,” said Ariel Pablos-Mendez, professor at Columbia University and former assistant administrator for Global Health at the U.S. Agency for International Development. To be effective, he said, efforts to eliminate persistent NTDs need fresh thinking and strategies.

“Simply adding more money to the same things we’re doing before may not be ... as valuable as it was a few years ago,” he told Devex. “They have an opportunity as new players to come with new approaches.”

The UAE’s pitch to fellow donors will be about finishing the job and reaching something that is obtainable within a generation, said Barakat. If the global health community pulls back from eradication efforts on diseases such as polio, they could easily resurface, she said.

“You can’t give up, once you’ve started eliminating and eradicating, you really have to go the last mile.”

Update, September 19, 2017: This article has been updated to clarify the classification of polio and malaria as preventable diseases.

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About the author

  • Elizabeth Dickinson

    Elizabeth Dickinson is a former associate editor at Devex. Based in the Middle East, she has previously served as Gulf correspondent for The National, assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy, and Nigeria correspondent at The Economist. Her writing also appeared in The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Politico Magazine, and Newsweek, among others.