September 9, 2005

Europeans launch vaccines scheme

By Sumeet Desai

LONDON (Reuters) - European countries launched a scheme on Friday to provide $4 billion in life-saving vaccines to millions of poor children, but critics said the project was flawed and much more money was needed to address the problem.

British finance minister Gordon Brown said the scheme, the International Finance Facility for Immunization (IFFIm), would save the lives of some five million children over the next 10 years and another five million thereafter.

"It is a demonstration of the determination of world leaders to meet the Millennium Development Goals on infant mortality," he told a news conference, referring to United Nations targets to cut child mortality by two thirds by 2015.

The program is a pilot for a broader International Finance Facility (IFF), which Brown hopes to launch to raise larger amounts of money for development aid.

But aid agencies and lobby groups said the scheme, which aims to give poor countries money now by issuing bonds which rely on the aid commitments of rich countries as collateral, might simply store up problems for the future.

"Our concern is that because the IFF is a way of borrowing money from international financial markets, in years to come we're going to end up using aid money to pay off the interest to financiers rather than helping the poor," said Peter Hardstaff of the campaign group the World Development Movement.

Other critics have said the scheme will have little impact without the participation of the United States, and that $4 billion is a drop in the ocean in a world in which 10 million children die each year from preventable diseases.

Brown is pushing the Group of Seven rich countries and the European Union for the much wider finance facility he says could double aid to the poorest countries to $100 billion a year.

But the plan has run into opposition, particularly from the United States.

Brown launched the more modest scheme with his counterparts from France, Italy, Spain and Sweden. He said the Europeans were encouraging other countries, including China and Brazil, to sign up.

Britain has pledged 35 percent of the resources required to raise the $4 billion, which is equivalent to $130 million a year. France has pledged 25 percent or $100 million a year and Italy, Spain and Sweden will announce their contributions later.

Italian Economy Minister Domenico Siniscalco acknowledged the scheme was a way of "borrowing from the future" but denied it was a gimmick, telling the news conference in London it was based on "very sound finance."

He recalled his own childhood in post-war Italy, saying vaccination programs there had had a significant impact within just a few years.

Lee Jong-Wook, director-general of the World Health Organization, also backed the scheme.

"When I first heard about it, frankly I thought it was a crazy idea and would never fly," he said. "I was wrong and I'm very glad I was wrong."

A spokeswoman for Goldman Sachs said the investment bank was acting as an unpaid adviser to the UK Treasury on the scheme.

She said it was also advising the Vaccine Fund, the financing arm of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization which promotes vaccination.

But a Treasury source said a decision on who would administer the scheme was some way off.

"There is a competitive tender in progress to see who will run the IFFIm and a decision will be taken by the winner of that process as to which financial institutions will be involved," the source said.

(Additional reporting by Gideon Long)