Infectious diseases cause the suffering of hundreds of millions of people, especially in tropical and subtropical areas. Effective, affordable and easy-to-use medicines to fight these diseases are nearly absent. Although science and technology are sufficiently advanced to provide the necessary medicines, very few new drugs are being developed. However, drug discovery is not the major bottleneck. Today's R&D-based pharmaceutical industry is reluctant to invest in the development of drugs to treat the major diseases of the poor, because return on investment cannot be guaranteed. With national and international politics supporting a free market-based world order, financial opportunities rather than global health needs guide the direction of new drug development. Can we accept that the dearth of effective drugs for diseases that mainly affect the poor is simply the sad but inevitable consequence of a global market economy? Or is it a massive public health failure, and a failure to direct economic development for the benefit of society? An urgent reorientation of priorities in drug development and health policy is needed. The pharmaceutical industry must contribute to this effort, but national and international policies need to direct the global economy to address the true health needs of society. This requires political will, a strong commitment to prioritize health considerations over economic interests, and the enforcement of regulations and other mechanisms to stimulate essential drug development. New and creative strategies involving both the public and the private sector are needed to ensure that affordable medicines for today's neglected diseases are developed. Priority action areas include advocating an essential medicines R&D agenda, capacity-building in and technology transfer to developing countries, elaborating an adapted legal and regulatory framework, prioritizing funding for essential drug development and securing availability, accessibility, distribution and rational use of these drugs.