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The history of malaria is a long one. Originating in West Africa, it spread to half of humankind by the mid19th century and has killed tens of millions and infected hundreds of millions more, including eight American Presidents. Malaria played a role in stopping Alexander the Great in India. It contributed to the fall of Rome, the relocation of the Vatican and the U.S. defeat in Vietnam. It still rages in the poverty-stricken world: it killed 863,000 people in 2008 89% of them African, and 88% of those people children under 5 and infected 243 million more, says the World Health Organization (WHO). The lobbying group Malaria No More reckons that the disease costs Africa $12 billion a year 1.3% of its economic growth. Fixing that would be the biggest boost to health and development in history. It would also be a stunning riposte to aid's critics.
It could happen. A previous campaign against malaria in the 1950s and '60s effectively eliminated the disease in Europe and the U.S. but made little progress in Africa and Asia, in part because health officials concluded that those places were simply too tough to fix. This time things are different. Now more than ever, it's unacceptable indeed, immoral to see Africa and Asia as beyond help. Today's funding is unprecedented, exceeding $10 billion. So is the leadership, from the U.S. President to the Sultan of Nigeria to soccer star David Beckham. Their goal is threefold: universal protection by the end of 2010 via the distribution of 700 million insecticide-treated bed nets; no more malaria deaths by the end of 2015; no malaria at all a decade or two after that.
The logistics of such a plan are less complex than they seem, because while malaria affects half the world's countries, just seven the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, southern Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda account for two-thirds of all cases. So how might this malaria campaign succeed where so many others have come unstuck?
The Unlikely Leader
High above the Serengeti, Ray Chambers unclips his safety belt and beckons me to follow him to the back of the plane. At 67, Chambers, the U.N. special envoy for malaria, is graying and a little stiff, but with his square jaw, Clint Eastwood voice and the plane his own there is still something of the Master of the Universe about him. The son of a Newark, N.J., warehouse manager, Chambers was in his 20s when he came up with the idea of the leveraged buyout, a concept that made him fabulously rich but not happy. In 1987 he found himself visiting a project for inner-city teenagers in Newark. He promised to pay the college tuition of 1,000 kids "if they stayed the path." That made him feel great. So in 1989 he closed his investment firm and became a philanthropist, giving away $50 million by 1993.
In 2005, Chambers was looking at a photograph of sleeping Mozambican children taken by his friend the Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs. "Cute kids," he remarked. "You don't understand," replied Sachs. "They're in malarial comas. They all died." Chambers was mortified. "So I said to Jeff, 'I'd like to kind of come up with business concepts to see if we can't save 1.3 million children a year.'" The next year, he established Malaria No More a group that raises money, implements programs and stands as a case study of how aid can change.
The ethos of Malaria No More is that aid should be seen not as a noble act of charity but as something that's in everyone's interest. Eradicating disease boosts productivity, creates markets, stabilizes governments even gives celebrities a point. It's a route to prosperity. Official endorsement of Chambers' approach came in 2008 when U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed him special envoy. "You could see Ray was the guy to get this done," says WHO head Margaret Chan.
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