Addressing Non-Communicable Diseases in Africa: The Overlooked Role of Regional Alliances
The African continent has gravitated towards regionalism in an attempt to catalyze development and strengthen African integration and unity. For example, the African Union’s adoption of the African Union Non-Aggression and Common Defense Pact acknowledged the AU’s right of intervention in member states to restore peace and security. Moreover, Africa is expected to have the world’s largest increase in deaths from NCDs, such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and cancers, over the next decade. By 2030, NCDs are projected to become the leading cause of death in sub-Saharan Africa. In most countries in Northern Africa, NCDs already account for more than three quarters of all deaths.
Unless urgent action is taken, the growing NCD burden will add tremendous pressure to health systems that are already overstretched. This action must take regional politics into account, as regional actors help to ensure that African voices are heard and reflected in the commitments and resolutions made by their governments to address NCDs. For instance, regional actors have raised maternal, newborn and child health to the highest level of policy decision-making on the African continent and beyond. Regional actors have also driven the expansion of evidence-based interventions to improve maternal and child health and served as platforms for researchers and advocates to pool their expertise. But this is only one example.
Thus far, regional approaches related to health in Africa, outside of maternal, newborn and child health, have been minimal and need to be better developed. Regional organizations can effectively promote regional health diplomacy and governance through engagement with international institutions, civil society, non-governmental organizations and public-private partnerships. Despite growing interest in regionalism throughout Africa, regional approaches to health have not currently met their full potential. For example, the South African Development Community (SADC) is an important member-based organization, headquartered in Botswana, with the main aims of supporting regionalism, development coordination and cooperation. However, SADC has a limited heath presence as a regional organization and diplomatic partner. It has been argued that SADC has the potential to promote regional health diplomacy by increasing its engagement with civil society and non-profit organizations, advancing its trade agenda related to medical purchases and focusing on training and retaining health professionals in the region.
A lack of resources, continued conflict in the region and political differences are all obstacles to regional collaboration in Africa, but if governments form partnerships to address these challenges, use donor money effectively and invest in their own health systems, there is immense potential to create beneficial change and minimize the burden of NCDs.