Opinion: Stop the medical plundering of Africa

Peter Stanford, a writer and broadcaster and sits on various trustee boards

Like many others, I tuned in to Comic Relief night on the BBC. If I'm honest, what I really wanted to see was who would win Celebrity Fame Academy: husky Edith or perfect Kim. I was in the Edith camp - I like a lived-in voice. The programme makers, however, cleverly rationed glimpses of these two putative torch singers, thus ensuring, via short reports from the coalface by celebs, that viewers got an achingly accurate picture of the overwhelming scale of need in Africa.

Some of these mini-features were extraordinarily moving: in particular, the little boy left orphaned who literally shook in his sister's arms as he sobbed for his dead parents. As the Commission for Africa has made plain again - for those who have somehow managed not to realise it so far - the suffering of that continent is immense and our western efforts to alleviate it woefully inadequate. There have been and will continue to be many fine words spoken, but still Africa waits for action.

Comic Relief raised almost £40m on the night by confronting us in the starkest possible terms with what is happening in Africa. If you ever doubted that humanity is, on the whole, good and compassionate, then our response here was unimpeachable evidence. Yet just days later, a report from the British Medical Association showed exactly how complicated compassion can be.

Every Brit wants a decent NHS, but in order to bring down waiting times, it seems, we are stripping Africa bare of doctors and nurses to make up staff numbers in our hospitals. We give with one hand and take away with another. Our hearts go out to the millions of Aids sufferers in Africa, but then we rob them of the doctors and nurses they need to treat them.

It is, as the BMA said, utterly immoral.

It's all the more so because there is something we can do about it - namely, recruit and train more homegrown doctors and nurses. And we can do that by making it more appealing as a career, mainly by paying them more. They are among the most precious resources any society has.

The choice is stark: get doctors and nurses on the cheap by plundering the cream of the African medical training colleges that our money has often set up; or make a real investment in the health service at home, which will then allow the investments made in Africa by our government and our people, through charities such as Comic Relief, to have genuine and long-lasting effects.

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