The world is full of endemic, intractable problems that we as a rich developed nation are asked to help solve: poverty, hunger, health problems, inequality, and more. Our efforts to address these problems through aid have had mixed results. Sometimes progress emerges, sometimes the same progress is reversed, and often it seems all our aid money disappears into some void of poor targeting, corruption, and problems that are just too complex to solve.
But what if we found out that one of these high-profile and complicated problems could be drastically ameliorated by a simple solution involving an attractively designed package?
HIV/AIDS is a major issue for the entire world, but especially for sub-Saharan Africa. The Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS states that in 2008, 67% of HIV infections worldwide were in sub-Saharan Africa. 72% of AIDS-related deaths in the same year were in the area. More chillingly, 91% of new HIV infections among children occurred in sub-Saharan Africa. Many of these new infections were due to mother-baby transmission, something that modern medicine is quite capable of halting.
This problem has been a focus of aid and humanitarian initiative for quite some time, and is also represented in the Millennium Development Goals, with seemingly little progress. If ever there were a stubborn problem, HIV/AIDS is it.
UNICEF, however, seems to have stumbled upon a breakthrough. The new Mother-Baby Pack places all the medications necessary to prevent mother-baby transmission of HIV/AIDS into one pack. This pack is color-coded and uses symbols to let expecting mothers know which pills to take at which time, even if they are unable to read. The pack only costs $70, a hefty price for African women but a very low price for governments and aid organizations, as this is less than half of what it would cost to treat an HIV-positive baby for a year.
This extraordinarily simple solution answers many of the problems encountered in previous attempts to prevent mother-baby transmission. Women no longer have to walk to clinics to receive medication, a daunting task for women in rural areas, who may live miles from the nearest health worker. They are not only more likely to take the medication through this program, but also more likely to complete the cycle of medication given the ease of dosing. No medical training or education is necessary to understand how and when to administer the pills.
The program has been successful enough to be expanded beyond its pilot phase into Lesotho, Kenya, Cameroon, and Zambia. UNICEF appears to have high hopes for further expansion, as interest grows in funding the project.
How many other development goals or problems could be answered with a simple solution? The Mother-Baby Pack was developed from the ideas of Lesotho health workers, and involved design innovation, not medical research or expanded funding from donors. To solve the problem of HIV/AIDS transmission to babies during pregnancies, we already had the money and the medical know-how. All that was needed was a unique and simple solution.
As a major donor of aid, the United States should push for more innovative thinking that listens to what people on the ground who are in the midst of dealing with a problem have to say, and that does not immediately opt for traditional solutions or putting more money into a problem. Perhaps there is an elegant solution to other seemingly intractable issues we as a globe face today.