When you think of who's trying to reduce the global carnage from traffic deaths, the first funder to come to mind is Bloomberg Philanthropies.
In fact, that's pretty much the only funder that comes to mind. We can't think of any other major foundation or top donor that's giving in a big way to tackle a problem that causes 1.25 million deaths annually, with that number set to rise in coming years.
Meanwhile, as we've often reported, Mike Bloomberg and his team keep plugging away at this issue. The foundation has committed over $259 million since 2007 to road safety projects in low- and middle-income countries with a high number of road related fatalities through its Bloomberg Philanthropies Global Road Safety Initiative (BIGRS).
It estimates that some 125,000 lives will be saved as a result of Bloomberg-backed road safety initiatives. If our math is right, Bloomberg will spend around $2072 for each life saved, which sounds like a bargain to us. That's even cheaper than saving lives by giving for anti-malaria nets, which has been estimated at about $3,500 for each life saved.
Malaria is a hot cause among many funders, large and small. Traffic safety is not. Why is that?
While you ponder that question, let's look at what's happening lately with BIGRS. Earlier this summer, it convened a three-day meeting in Bangkok, Thailand of the far-flung network of people involved in this work to take a look at the progress made, and determine what still needs to be done.
There was a lot of urgency around this meeting. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), traffic accidents and road traffic injuries are the leading cause of death among those aged 15 to 29. By 2030, the WHO estimates that road traffic crashes will result in more fatalities than HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and breast cancer.
Road safety isn’t sexy, but it’s a pretty big deal, and it's interesting to see the different moving parts of Bloomberg's approach to the problem, which was reflected by the participants in the Bangkok meeting. Working with governments and other stakeholders is key, and the initiative aims to pull various levers, including policy, law, and marketing. The foundation reports that since 2007, as a result of its work, "nearly 2 billion people have been covered by strengthened road safety laws, 65 million people have been exposed to hard-hitting media campaigns promoting road safety, close to 30,000 professionals have been trained on road safety tactics and governments have committed $225 million towards infrastructure improvements that will make roads safer."
Of course, there's a big data component, too, and lately, BIGRS has trained several hundred journalists in understanding road safety data.
Speaking of data, last year, Bloomberg Philanthropies launched a $100 million Data for Health Initiative in partnership with the Australian government. The goal of the initiative is to figure out how an estimated 35 million people died whose deaths have gone unrecorded. The purpose is to provide governments, public health leaders and aid organizations with better health data through improved collection systems and tools. The data will then be used to monitor risk factors for early death. As Bloomberg puts it, “Reliable data is absolutely essential to problem solving.”
Anyway, back to our question above: Why aren't more funders working the road safety issue? After all, this is pretty low-hanging fruit in a world of complicated and daunting health and development challenges. As with curbing tobacco use (an issue the Gates Foundation is also behind, FYI), reducing traffic deaths is something that we know how to do, given that advanced countries have already had great success on this front.
Maybe the answer is that many foundations view road safety as an issue squarely within the purview of government, which regulates transportation, and don't feel confidence in their ability to sway policy in places like Brazil, Mexico and Vietnam. Bloomberg, by contrast, has a strong background in government.
Or maybe, as we said before, the issue just isn't sexy. That's certainly true, and it's hard to imagine Bono putting on a concert to enact seatbelt laws. On the other hand, what could be sexier than actually saving lives?