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An Afghan health worker gives a vaccination to a child during a polio campaign in the old part of Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 8, 2018.
Rahmat Gul/AP
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'It’s No Time for Complacency': Norway on Fighting Polio and Global Hunger Amid COVID-19


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For years, Norway has been a world leader in the fight against extreme poverty and the effort to strengthen global health, sustainability, food security, and more. 

And since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Norway has continued to invest international aid in fighting the disease and its devastating effects — from rising extreme poverty to disrupted education and food systems.

As Global Citizen celebrates Tuesday’s major milestone of Africa being certified free of wild poliovirus, we followed up with Norway’s State Secretary of International Development Aksel Jakobsen to discuss how the country is responding to COVID-19 while staying committed to fighting polio and other infectious diseases, as well as other global development challenges.

Read the full interview here.

On Aug. 25, the African region will be certified free of wild poliovirus, but there's still more work to do to protect these gains in Africa and end all forms of polio globally. After a pause due to COVID-19, polio vaccination campaigns are now resuming following safety guidelines, including in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the last remaining polio endemic countries. It's critical that we regain lost ground given UNICEF has reported that 50 million children have missed out on their polio vaccinations due to COVID-19. How is Norway helping to maintain world leaders' focus on fighting polio and other infectious diseases globally in light of COVID-19?

I welcome the news about the wild poliovirus being eradicated from the African continent. This is a great achievement and major step toward ridding the globe of polio virus. It gives hope and underlines the effectiveness of the vaccination strategy. 

This is well worth celebrating also in this time of crisis. I really feel that the engagement of partners like Global Citizen have been revitalizing and putting new momentum to the fight against polio and also other infectious diseases.  

You’re perfectly right, we need to keep up our efforts to fight polio, measles, and other infectious diseases simultaneously as we are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Both the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance are crucial in this work. And that’s why Norway, already one of the top donors to Gavi, stepped up and increased our support during the Gavi replenishment event — we are pledging more than $1 billion US dollars over the next few years to Gavi. 

Norway’s overall strategy is to move towards universal health coverage. We focus on building up stronger primary health care services globally. Ideally, polio should be addressed within this framework. And the infrastructure that has been built up around polio has been important to get primary health care to remote places worldwide, and the infrastructure has actually also proved important to address the COVID-19 challenge in some areas. 

So routine immunization is key in addressing polio, and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and the inactivated polio vaccine has been an important tool for our support to polio eradication. And let me give you some breaking news here. Just yesterday [Aug. 19], we strengthened our global health team and appointed a global health ambassador that will amplify our message about global health, vaccination, and the fight against polio.

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In the lead up to the Reaching the Last Mile Forum event in Abu Dhabi in November 2019, tens of thousands of Global Citizens supported the call for world leaders to sustain their commitment towards a polio-free world. Prime Minister Erna Solberg recognized this at the 2019 Global Citizen Festival in New York's Central Park and publicly reaffirmed Norway's commitment to polio eradication. The government then committed over $10 million in Abu Dhabi to support the GPEI. Why was it important for Norway to make this contribution, and can you update Global Citizens on its status to continue supporting polio eradication efforts moving forward?

I was representing Norway in Abu Dhabi, and Norway is committed to continue the fight against polio. It’s no time for complacency on this, and we need to make sure that children everywhere get access to the polio vaccine and all basic vaccination. Both the GPEI as well as Gavi is crucial to this work. At the moment, we will participate and help ensure that a new strategy of GPEI will be a success. This process has just started and we are involved in that work.  

The status of the commitment is that the funds, 50 million NOK a year for 2020 and for 2021, have been allocated to WHO [World Health Organization] and earmarked for polio eradication. The funds will be disbursed, as soon as the agreement has been signed.

Related Stories Aug. 2, 2019 This Global Initiative Has Eliminated 99.9% of Polio Cases Around the World

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a range of secondary effects — from increases in  extreme poverty and food insecurity to 1 billion youth out of school, a growing risk of other disease outbreaks, and increased gender-based violence. We are in a sense facing multiple, cascading crises, all requiring attention and resources. Some people in the international development community argue that we need to focus on the direct impact of the pandemic by resourcing the development and distribution of COVID-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines — and by doing so, we will mitigate the secondary effects. How has Norway approached balancing addressing both the disease directly and its devastating effects through international aid and cooperation?

That’s a good question. First of all, I would say that now is not the time to cut down on our [international] development assistance. That statement is important to make. You know the sources of income to poor countries are shrinking these days because of the pandemic. Trade is going down. Investments are going down. Remittances from migrants are going down. This means that development aid becomes relatively more important, especially in the poorest countries, so this is not a time to cut down on development assistance. 

I believe that the clear prioritizing we have done at home in Norway gives a good direction also in the work we do abroad with our partners in development work. At home, our first priority is saving lives and protecting people’s health. This relates to global health, it’s about vaccines and investing in health systems. And globally, I think this is also about stepping up the fight against the rising hunger crisis that is made much worse by the pandemic. The other main priority is to protect and prioritize children, and all over the world the reopening of schools are crucial, and especially for girls. And then, a third priority is to support job creation and the rebuilding of the economy after the economic effects of the crisis. In that we need to build back better and in a more climate smart way. 

So that’s how we think in Norway, and I think we can take the same principles also when we work abroad, and to make sure that not only the humanitarian crisis response is financed but also the longer term development efforts. Norway took the initiative to establish the UN COVID-19 response and recovery multi-partner trust fund to support low-income countries in overcoming the health and development crisis caused by the pandemic. The fund is targeting those most vulnerable to economic hardship and social disruption.

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The World Food Programme reported that double the number of people — 265 million — are facing starvation this year due to COVID-19 locking down economies and disrupting food supply chains, including the harvests of smallholder farmers that local food markets in low-income countries depend on. For example, Nigeria is facing widespread extreme hunger in a country where around 90 million people live on less than $2 a day. How can governments and institutions really get ahead of this problem and avoid catastrophe in the poorest countries? 

Globally, more than 820 million people do not have enough to eat. Since 2014, the fight against hunger and malnutrition has been going in the wrong direction. It’s the one Sustainable Development Goal that has been going in the wrong direction since the beginning. So for me, and for Norway, this has been a priority already before the pandemic made this much worse. It is totally unacceptable because access to sufficient and safe and healthy food is a prerequisite for good education, for good health, for economic development. If you don’t have food, you have no development. So everyone involved in development should be concerned about this rising hunger pandemic we see. 

COVID-19 is deteriorating food security as it threatens to double the number of people experiencing crisis levels of hunger. We just have to intensify our action to provide food to the most vulnerable in the fight against poverty. The World Bank has found that nothing is more effective in the fight against poverty than investments in agriculture, and especially in the 500 million small scale farmers.   

We also know that food from the oceans is key to ensuring enough food for the growing population. And to produce more food from the ocean, we do need to take better care of the ocean — stop pollution and plastic litter, for instance.  

So that has been part of our strategy for a while, and it’s just been more important as the pandemic has made the situation worse. A year ago, Norway made an action plan on sustainable food systems in our development policy, and the implementation of this plan is now more urgent than ever before. And we do need to have the most vulnerable people in developing countries as our top priority in this work.

Related Stories April 29, 2020 Risk of Other Disease Outbreaks Increases as the World Is Forced to Focus on COVID-19

COVID-19 has forced governments to spend significant amounts of public funds to support their populations through the pandemic, at a time when international assistance is needed more than ever. How has Norway been communicating the value of its international aid to Norwegians to maintain public support, and how can Global Citizens can help to amplify that message?

I’m happy to say that there is a broad consensus in Norway to provide at least 1% of our gross national income to international development aid and official development assistance. Studies and polls also show that Norweigan aid enjoys a consistent high level of acceptance in the population. 

On the other hand, the knowledge about what aid funds are spent on is not as well understood, and this is why we are having results measurements and reporting high on the agenda. The evaluation department located in the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation is mandated to initiate and carry out independent evaluation of any activity financed by the Norwegian aid budget. This is part of building trust and true transparency. And the key to build trust and engagement is transparency, and that the results of the money spent are made available to the public. I think that is the key, to be transparent and show the good results. There’s enough people talking about things that go wrong, but the fact is that the money used on aid today really saves lives, protects people’s health, helps children go to school, and so on. There are marvelous results and we need to make them available and visible to the public, as well as be transparent when things are not good enough.