Off to Liberia, With UNITAID

Quick programming note.  I’m heading to Liberia this week on a global health reporting project.  I will accompany a delegation from UNITAID, a World Health Organization affiliated program that gives grants to governments and NGOs to implement HIV/AIDS, Malaria, TB and other health projects in the developing world.

Regular readers may recall that I traveled to Cameroon in August with UNITAID. I look forward to seeing how UNITAID and its grantees operate in a comparatively more difficult environment. (Cameroon is among the region’s wealthiest countries. Liberia is the poorest).

The last time I traveled to Liberia was in 2008, for about 8 hours. At the time, I was part of a delegation following around President Clinton as he visited Clinton Foundation projects in the country and met with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Back then, Liberia was only five years removed from its devastating civil war. Institutions and infrastructure had to be built from scratch. The UN was everywhere.

The country is still on the road to recovery. President Sirleaf, Africa’s only female head of state, won the Nobel Peace Prize. This fall, the country emerged from a contentious presidential election, which is always a challenging thing for countries emerging from civil war. There are still about 10,000 peacekeepers in the country.

The international community rallies behind Liberia like no other country in the region. In part, that may be because of its historic ties to the United States.  Also, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is much liked among western colleagues and donors.  The Nobel Peace Prize, of course, is a powerful symbol of her international support.

Part of Liberia’s recovery and transition means building up its health infrastructure.  UNITAID is an important partner in that effort. With funds raised from a small tax on plane tickets in a handful of countries, UNITAID is able to raise billions of dollars to finance health projects. For the next week, I will see how these projects operate first hand and offer a few thoughts on how innovative financing programs like UNITAID can support global health goals in an era of flat-lining foreign aid budgets.