While skimming through a recent Global Development Executive Briefing, I came across this brief announcement—President George W. Bush has said the U.S. will help provide 5.2 million mosquito nets as part of a broader campaign to tackle malaria in sub-Saharan Africa. Bush announced the plan during a visit to a hospital in Arusha, Tanzania, where he is on the second leg of a tour of five African countries. He said it would provide free nets for every Tanzanian child aged one to five. Malaria is the main cause of death for children in Africa, killing a child every 30 seconds, the United Nations says. The U.S., Tanzania, and the Global Fund to fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria will distribute the nets.
Washington-based, nonprofit group Population Services International (PSI) has had significant success with this exact mission, through its own innovative system for distributing bed nets in Malawi.
Here’s some quick background: In 2000, PSI created a supply and demand program that prompted the number of Malawian children (under the age of five) sleeping under bed nets to increase from 8 percent in 2000 to 55 percent in 2004. PSI stocked antenatal clinics with bed nets, which the clinics sold for 50 cents to destitute mothers who populate the clinics. The clinics retained a percentage of the value of the nets for themselves, which stimulated them to keep the nets in stock. Simultaneously, PSI sold nets to more affluent Malawians for 5 dollars a net. The proceeds were used to compensate for the nets sold below their value at the clinics. Voila, the program pays for itself.
The success of the program is a direct derivative of the multidisciplinary approach that PSI took when executing this project. They looked at the big picture. Instead of simply mass distributing the nets, PSI created a system of supply and demand. They assessed the economical and social structure of the country and effectively developed the most beneficial way not only to get their product to those who needed it, but to create a system that sustained itself. It ensured that those who needed the nets got them, and those that didn’t did not, thus preventing significant monetary loss on their end from mass distribution. It also arguably stimulated the system to grow exponentially, requiring minimal interference from PSI.
So, eight years after the beginning of a very successful program to distribute bed nets to a country with a similar social, economical, and environmental profile, Bush announces that 5.2 million bed nets will be mass distributed, for free, to children under five.
Why are we not mimicking PSI’s system, a system that’s already been proven highly successful? Or better yet, why aren’t we enlisting PSI to repeat a similar program for the Tanzania project? I’d like to think we’ve got some even better, innovative idea that is a morph of PSI’s concept, one that will secure this project as even more of a success, but I balk at giving us that much credit. It begs the question: If it ain’t broke…why are we fixing it?