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Rachel NugentHeart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and cancers are usually considered diseases of the rich world, the result of too much food and too little exercise. But these serious diseases are already a huge problem in the developing world, accounting for about half of the burden of disease. Yet new research from the Center for Global Development has found that barely 3% of foreign aid and philanthropic spending for developing world health addresses these often overlooked diseases.

My guest this week is the lead author of that research, Rachel Nugent, CGD deputy director of global health. In a working paper co-authored with Andrea Feigl – Where Have All the Donors Gone? Scarce Donor Funding for Non-Communicable Diseases – Rachel examines the impact of non-communicable diseases in the developing world and assesses the response of international donors. In the Wonkcast, we discuss her findings and recommendations for addressing this challenge.

It’s the first time that anybody has estimated foreign aid and philanthropic spending on non-communicable diseases in developing countries. I was shocked at both how important these diseases have become, and how little is being spent to address them.

The answer, Rachel is quick to point out, is not to drastically reduce funding for preventing and treating contagious diseases. Instead, there are low-cost, effective steps for both preventing and treating non-communicable diseases that can help keep people healthy while reducing the burden on fragile developing country health systems.

Some of these steps, like reducing salt and fat content in basic prepared foods and raising taxes on cigarettes, require awareness and government action, but not necessarily health budget funding. And many medical treatments for non-communicable diseases have been proven to be cheap and effective, and should be incorporated into routine healthcare.

With better screening to identify people at high-risk for heart disease, for example, “we could prevent about 14 million premature deaths over ten years at the cost of only 50 cents per person per year just through a combination treatment of aspirin and anti- cholesterol and high blood pressure medication,” Rachel says.

Non-communicable diseases are on the rise in developing countries in part because life-styles are changing faster than incomes are rising. For example, a large and growing share of people in the developing world now buy basic prepared foods and have sedentary jobs, according to the paper.

In addition to the suffering and tragedy of pre-mature illness and death, non-communicable diseases extract a growing toll on the economy, she says.

“It is going to be very costly in developing countries to have people sick with these pretty serious diseases, out of work and dying at a young age,” she warns.

Without action to address the problem, developing “countries lose the productivity, and they lose the contributions to GDP that these adults can provide.”

Listen to the Wonkcast to hear the full interview. Have something to add to the discussion? Ideas for future interviews? Post a comment below. If you use iTunes, you can subscribe to get new episodes delivered straight to your computer every week.

My thanks to Wren Elhai for his very able production assistance on the Wonkcast recording and to Jessica Brinton for drafting this blog post.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.