In recent months it has become fashionable to say that future Western aid to Africa will be a hand up, not a handout. African governments, the aid lobby claims, will be encouraged to search for innovative solutions to their problems, free of Western interference. Yet, when the Ugandan government decided to introduce DDT, an effective insecticide, to its malaria‐control program, the European Union threatened to embargo Ugandan agricultural exports to the EU. The EU threats are based on junk science. If carried out, they will cause a lot of harm.
Uganda used DDT very successfully during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Some African countries — Eritrea, Madagascar, Mozambique, Namibia and Swaziland included — still successfully use it. In part as a result of the pressure from the environmentalist lobby, the South African government briefly discontinued the use of DDT in the late 1990s. Between 1998 and 2000, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa’s most malarial province, experienced a 400 percent increase in malaria cases and the government was forced to reintroduce DDT. By 2001, malaria cases fell to their pre‐1998 levels.
Encouraged by those results, the Ugandan Minister of Health, Jim Muhwezi, floated the idea of approving the use of DDT as one way of combating malaria in Uganda. He wants DDT to be used in addition to bednets and new drug treatments. If realized, Mr. Muhwezi’s wish would come not a moment too soon. Despite the fact that malaria is both preventable and curable, the disease kills up to 110,000 Ugandan children every year. Based on its past performance, it is reasonable to expect that the introduction of DDT could dramatically reduce that death rate.
Unfortunately, DDT also happens to be an insecticide that most environmentalists love to hate — and nowhere more so than in the capitals of Western Europe. DDT has been used for more than 60 years and in all that time no scientifically replicated study has been able to link the chemical to cancer in humans. Despite the bad press from environmentalists, the insecticide has an incredibly safe record of use. In any event, when used in malaria control, DDT is sprayed on the inside walls of houses in minute quantities. The chances of any trace amounts of DDT ending up on agricultural produce are tiny, and even if they did, the effects on human health would be negligible.
The EU threats are part of a broader European agenda to force African countries to comply with rules and regulations that are totally unsuitable for Africa’s level of economic development. Take Pascal Lamy, who used to be the EU’s chief trade negotiator and now heads the World Trade Organization. Before leaving the EU Commission, Mr. Lamy proposed to open European markets to imports from the poor countries. In exchange, those countries would have to sign on to the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, the Cartagena Protocol on genetically modified organisms, and a plethora of international labor agreements.
But European countries did not have to comply with environmental and labor regulations when they were at Africa’s stage of economic development. After Europe developed and its standard of living increased, many people were able to pay a premium for commercial goods that were produced in an environmentally friendly way. Increased efficiency of production and the concomitant reduction of waste also contributed to better environmental quality. Forcing poor countries to accede to unsuitable treaties will only slow down their economic development.
It is encouraging that the United States does not share the EU’s approach to combating poverty and disease in Africa. The Bush administration has not tried to force African countries to subscribe to growth‐killing environmental and labor regulations. Moreover, the administration takes a different view on how malaria should be fought. President Bush’s commitment of $1.2 billion to combat malaria on the African continent explicitly allows for “indoor residual spraying with approved insecticides,” including DDT.
Time will show how that money will be spent. In the past, much of the money earmarked for fighting deadly diseases in Africa was embezzled by corrupt officials. In addition, U.S. aid agencies, like the European aid agencies, actively opposed DDT use in Africa. Still, the fact that DDT is back on the agenda both in the United States and Uganda is good news for the Ugandan people.
It would be a shame if misguided environmentalists in Europe were to succeed in undermining the best hope the Africans have of defeating such a deadly menace.