Bono, SOS!

Nicholas Kristof hit the nail on the head in his New York Times column last week when he wrote about the failure of many humanitarian groups to package and market themselves effectively to build public support and generate essential funds. There have been some exceptions to this dismal record, however, and those exceptions provide a roadmap for the way forward.

One notable success story is the recent emergence of malaria as a prominent issue on the world stage. More than $3 billion have been raised--primary from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the World Bank, the (U.S.) President's Malaria Initiative, and the Gates Foundation--with the aim of blanketing Sub-Saharan Africa with insecticide-treated bed nets (two nets per household) by the end of 2010.

Several factors have contributed to the malaria campaign's recent success: its media message is simple, sharply-defined, and empowering ("$10 buys a bed net, and saves a child's life"); field studies have demonstrated the feasibility and effectiveness of large-scale bed-net distribution efforts; high-profile champions have embraced the malaria campaign, resulting in substantial media attention; savvy, behind-the-scenes lobbying has generated support from donor countries; action-forcing events and deadlines, combined with the news media's continued interest in malaria, have kept malaria on policy makers' radar screens; and the faith community has mobilized powerful grassroots interest and support for the effort.

There are storm clouds on the horizon, however. Last week, the Global Fund warned that it faces a shortfall of $2.5-$3 billion for 2010, as donor countries retrench in the wake of the worldwide economic meltdown. Advocates for global health have their work cut out. They will need to re-group, re-start, and not let up.