‘We must do more, and do it faster,’ said Tony Banbury, the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative on Ebola, and Head of the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER), last week. We need ‘more staff to be deployed to the districts where the disease is. We need more Ebola treatment facilities, more community care centres, more partners on the ground to staff these centres, we need greater mobility. And we need money to pay for it all.’
So it was not much to ask that the world’s most powerful leaders would seize the opportunity of the G20 Summit in Australia (15-16 November) to address the acute global health and humanitarian crisis of Ebola.
Some governments have already made generous pledges of finance and medical staff since the WHO declared this Ebola outbreak a ‘Public Health Emergency of Global Concern’ in August this year. Yet instead of ambitious new commitments to help implement the UN plan, the G20 issued a statement on Ebola that was more talk than action.
Yes, G20 countries want to ‘extinguish’ the outbreak, and will ‘do the necessary,’ but no new cash or human resources were pledged. Their statement seemed to back away from specific commitments from governments; it could only ‘invite’ other governments to respond, whereas it ‘urges’ the pharmaceutical sector, the World Bank and IMF to do so.
There is one apparently new commitment in the statement: a further $300m from the IMF, with an unspecified split between concessional loans, debt relief, and grants. This is in the context, however, of the combined debt of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea being $3.6bn, which is already costing them $100m in debt service in 2014, and will be more next year. Considering the devastating impact of Ebola, these countries need grants and debt cancellation, not new debt.
To be fair, the G20 statement is a little better on solutions for the longer-term. The G20 recommitted to implementing the WHO’s International Health Regulations (which they are legally obliged to have already completed by 2012), that focus on disease surveillance and response capacities. The statement flagged that some G20 countries have initiatives to support countries in West Africa and elsewhere to implement the regulations too.
The World Bank re-announced its idea to develop a contingency fund for health crises, which would provide ready cash in the event of a future outbreak. The fund is supposed to provide a financial incentive for pharmaceutical companies to invest in vaccines and treatments for diseases afflicting developing countries, by assuring them that any vaccine or drug that they produce be paid for (out of this fund) if another epidemic hits. Clearly global financing for rapid response to outbreaks could be a useful vehicle for global actions. However, such solutions must also enhance local capacity to respond to outbreaks, and rapidly mobilise sufficient human and financial resources to help the countries in need.
The Ebola crisis highlights the failure of the current research and development (R&D) system which relies on market incentives for developing vaccines and medicines for public health needs. Financing R&D for vaccines and medicines for Ebola and similar outbreaks needs to happen now. R&D cannot wait till an outbreak is declared a global emergency. Instead the vaccines and medicines must be developed, and be ready for production and distribution at that time.
We will await the details of those proposals. The immediate priority must be focusing on the current outbreak, where there is still a need for greater international response. The UN has set itself a target to get a hold on the epidemic by 1 December – which would require treating 70 per cent of patients, and ensuring that 70 per cent of all burials are done safely. We are now 13 days away from this deadline, and the G20 had an opportunity to push the international response towards this goal. Unfortunately, it didn’t take it.
There is still a long way to go to turn this epidemic around, to reduce suffering and to save lives. This crisis cannot be summarised by numbers of cases and deaths – it is reaching into the heart of these countries, spreading fear and social breakdown. Oxfam is working with people who have lost five members of their family in a single week to Ebola. This kind of devastation is not easily overcome.
The impact also goes far beyond Ebola cases. A major collapse of health services means that deaths and illnesses from other diseases are going unchecked. It is difficult to imagine what can happen to women who have difficult labours when no health service is available for them, or for children that can’t get treated for malaria or pneumonia.
We urge G20 countries to rapidly deliver the promised financial and medical support to the affected countries in order to help bring an end to the suffering of their citizens.
The G20 has missed an important opportunity in the fight against Ebola. Now they have 13 days to prove they can still be world leaders.
Written by Toru Honda, MD, Chairperson, SHARE
On September 1, 2011, the Lancet featured Japan’s 50th anniversary of Universal Health Coverage (UHC). In 1961, Japan formally kick-started its national health insurance system. The system comprised two main components; an employee-based insurance ‘Shaho’ and a community-based insurance ‘Kokuho’.
Now Japan is lauded by WHO and OECD as one of the best countries in the world when it comes to healthy longevity of its population with relatively low medical expenditures. How was this possible? One key factor is the Japanese ‘Peace Constitution’ which underpinned universality and accessibility in health care services. Article 25 of the constitution stipulates that:
“All people shall have the right to maintain the minimum standards of wholesome and cultured living. In all spheres of life, the State shall use its endeavors for the promotion and extension of social welfare and security, and of public health”.
The Lancet articles presented fair analyses and lessons learnt from the Japanese experiences, especially regarding public policy and health system formation. However there is one important factor that was missed in the Lancet articles- namely the Primary Health Care (PHC) approaches. Japanese forerunners struggled to supplement the health system’s failures and shortcomings at the community levels by PHC.
This bottom-up approach has been tremendously important and instrumental than the mention in the Lancet articles. For the war-battered Japanese society, especially in rural areas where doctors have always been a rare commodity, PHC played a critical role.
I will describe the example of two persons who were role models for PHC:
Dr. Toshikazu Wakatsuki, a medical doctor and Mr. Masako Fukazawa, the mayor of Sawaguchi-mura village, who were great pioneers in setting up Community-health and UHC in Post-war Japan.
Dr. Wakatsuki was dispatched to the remote Saku region in Nagano prefecture to work in a forlorn hospital in March 1945 – just a few months before the surrender of Japanese Imperial Army to the Allied Forces. Although he was a gifted surgeon, he got deeply involved from the start in health promotion and preventive activities in the poor and mountainous communities. Since late 1940s, he had helped organize outreach health teams and community health volunteers and jointly started health counseling sessions for poor villagers using role plays pertinent to their everyday health issues and tried to raise health awareness among rural population. By 1980s, thanks to Wakatsuki and local people’s joint efforts, Nagano prefecture saw the incidence of stroke and TB, the two major killer diseases at that time, drastically lowered and medical cost to the population considerably reduced. Even to this day, Nagano stays at the top level among the 47 prefectures and city governments in terms of both male and female longevity.
In 1957, Mr. Fukazawa of Sawauchi-mura village, in the Iwate prefecture, was elected as mayor. The village is in northern Japan and is mostly immersed in snow with bad roads and no doctors. He first introduced state-of-the-art bulldozers into the village to remove deep snow from the roads and thus facilitated the transportation of the villagers to clinics, schools and shops during winter. He also started prenatal counseling and toddlers’ regular health checkups free of charge. In early 1960s Fukazawa introduced free medical consultation for infants under 1 year old and elderly persons above 60. His do-it-alone measure was severely criticized by the then central and prefectural governments because the national health insurance law did not allow such a policy. But Fukazawa proudly declared “Although I know what I did for the infants and the elderly was against the health law, I know it is in accordance with our Constitution, article 25.”
In five years’ time, villagers as well as policy makers were astonished to know that the infant mortality rate in Sawauchi was brought down from 69.6 per thousand to zero!. This marvelous achievement was accompanied by less medical costs compared to neighboring villages in the same prefecture. Eventually the Central Government adopted the same policy. Like Dr. Wakatsuki in Saku, Mr. Fukazawa was also eager to strengthen health promotion and preventive activities. He set up a village health committee and asked the villagers for active participation. For him, UHC was not only about making medical services free but also creating a sustainable and participatory mechanism in the community.
As physician and public health researcher, Julian Hart correctly pointed out in his famous article:
“The availability of good medical care tends to vary inversely with the need for it in the population served. This law operates more completely where medical care is most exposed to market forces, and less so where such exposure is reduced.”
This law is still valid to remind us of the fundamental factors that undermine the availability of health service. It emphasise that optimistic reliance on market forces must be challenged when establishing UHC both in the community, national and global contexts.
As a member of global society we must contribute to realizing better health for peoples in the developing nations. Our past experiences in UHC could offer important lesson for other countries and UN agencies that governments role in shaping the national health policies is without a doubt of paramount importance. Yet our experiences also shows that grass-roots level initiatives can also make a huge difference to improving the quality of UHC.
A new report published by Oxfam last week calls on governments to reduce inequality by changing the rules and systems that have led to extreme inequality, and by prioritising policies that redistribute money and power. ‘Even It Up: Time to End Extreme Inequality’ firmly presents universal public services – including health and education – as part of the solution to out-of-control inequality.
Health is both a human right and a building block to tackling poverty and reducing inequality. The provision of good quality health care for all – free at the point of use – can mitigate the impact of skewed income and wealth distribution, by closing the gap in life chances between the rich and the rest. Moreover, universal free health care (UHC) with other public services, especially education, puts ‘virtual income’ into the hands of ordinary people, further helping to level the playing field. Between 2000 and 2007, the ‘virtual income’ provided by public services reduced income inequality by an average of 20 percent across OECD countries for example.
In addition, quality health care and education can transform societies, by giving people the tools and ability to challenge unfair rules that perpetuate economic inequality. For example, healthy and well-nourished children are more likely to spend more years at school and to have better cognitive skills that help learning.
But the extent to which public services are able to achieve their inequality-busting potential is heavily dependent on how these systems are designed, financed and delivered. Low levels of public spending and a continued reliance on out-of-pocket payments to fund health services are disproportionately harming poor and marginalised women and men. User fees and other forms of out of pocket payments can push struggling families further into poverty and prevent people from getting the treatment they need.
“I went for a cataract operation. They told me it costs 7,000 Egyptian pounds. All I had in my pocket was seven so I decided to go blind” – a 60-year old woman in a remote village in Egypt”
When health care is not free, poor people are excluded from service or are forced to sell assets and borrow money; leading to debt and thus further perpetuating existing economic hardships. This happens even in rich countries; in the USA, medical debt contributed to 62 percent of personal bankruptcies in 2007.
All too often the amount of money available for governments to spend on public services is limited. Taxation is critical to ensure sufficient public funds can be invested in delivering free healthcare for all. However, the exploitation of tax loopholes, unfair tax rules and tax dodging results in governments’ loss of millions of dollars each year. For example, in 2008/09 the Rwandan government authorized tax exemptions that could have been used to double the health and education spending.
Decent investments in public health services that are free at point of delivery will boost the rights and opportunities of poor people. The growing momentum for UHC – under which all people should get the healthcare they need without suffering financial hardship – has the potential to vastly improve access to healthcare, and drive down inequality.
The ongoing Ebola story has highlighted the importance of the World Health Organization (WHO) in coordinating international action to combat emerging infectious disease threats. But it has also revealed the deficiencies in its performance which have now allowed a disease outbreak in West Africa to turn into a major international emergency. But in the current crisis in West Africa blame for its performance has been more prevalent than praise. As even its senior officials now admit WHO was too slow to recognize the potential seriousness of the outbreak – while also blaming the cutbacks in its emergency response capability agreed by its member states, as well as the unusual nature of the outbreak which it says caught the international community as a whole on the hop. The officials also point out that WHO is a technical assistance agency: there to help and advise governments on how to respond and supply needed expertise rather than run emergency healthcare operations on its own account.
On the other hand, some NGOs such as MSF, working to combat Ebola on the frontline, have criticized WHO’s slow response. They say that it should have recognized much earlier than it did the need to take the lead in mobilizing funding and personnel from other international actors to strengthen the weak healthcare infrastructures in the affected countries, as well as intensifying its own efforts to support governments with technical assistance and expertise.
Others blame WHO’s slowness and lack of leadership on its fundamental structural problems, which the reform programme launched by Margaret Chan in 2010 was intended to address. These structural problems include both its funding and its unique structure of regional offices which elect their own leaders. Much adverse comment has been directed at the role of WHO’s Africa regional office in Brazzaville which Peter Piot recently described as being staffed with political appointees rather than the most capable people, and the alleged lack of good cooperation between Brazzaville and Geneva. While there is undoubtedly financial stringency in WHO, and a severe shortage of experienced staff in HQ, the case is different with country staffing. The three most affected countries have country office staff exceeding 100 in total, there are nearly 750 in the country offices in the West African region as a whole, and there is nearly 600 staff in the regional headquarters in the Congo. In addition the African region has nearly 2500 contracted staff involved in polio eradication. It is hard to believe that more could not have been done with all these staff on the ground if properly mobilized and managed.
A report on WHO reform published in May this year, based on the deliberations of a working group convened by Chatham House, noted that WHO’s core functions as defined by WHO excluded explicit reference to promoting and maintaining global health security, specifically including its response to disease outbreaks and public health emergencies.
But the report focused mainly on the WHO’s structural problems that the ongoing internal reform process in WHO was not dealing with. The Ebola story illustrates many of these. The report asked: whether WHO really needed six semi-autonomous regional offices? Was this not a recipe for conflict and slow and poor decision-making? And did it need 150 country offices? How did politicization and the politics of patronage adversely affect WHO’s performance, credibility and effectiveness at all three levels of the organization? Was its complex governance structure not the main reason that it spends one third of its budget on administration and management at the expense of its technical programmes? Were there not more efficient ways to do what WHO needed to do? Why was WHO often reluctant to lead rather than to follow its member states? Why did the member states countenance this state of affairs?
The report has evoked practically no response at all – from governments, the academic community, NGOs or anyone else for that matter. Why is this?
A plausible explanation, which was suggested often by one of the members of the Chatham House working group, is that no one cares sufficiently about WHO reform to do anything about it. The status quo is too comfortable, or not sufficiently uncomfortable, for any member state to want to change things.
The weird financing arrangements, whereby 75% or more of WHO’s income is in the form of voluntary contributions, suits member states for different reasons. A few rich countries (and charities such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), by directing their voluntary contributions in ways of their own choosing, get to control what WHO does in spite of being a small minority in the World Health Assembly, or not in it at all. Yet because of this effective subsidy, poorer countries pay contributions which are a quarter of what they would be if WHO was wholly financed by member state subscriptions. Thus for the great majority of member states WHO membership is a bargain. They get a WHO country office whose budget (paid for by WHO) will normally exceed by a large margin their WHO contribution.
Because WHO regional offices are run as semi-autonomous replicas of WHO in Geneva, ministries of health also get the opportunity to influence appointments to regional and country offices where those chosen can access UN-related salary and benefit packages. Thus it is not just a financial bargain but often carries actual or personal benefits for senior country officials. So there is little mystery about why change should be resisted. Even where it is recognized that a WHO country office may have outlived its utility (in a country like Thailand for instance) it would be a brave politician or official who suggested closing what is essentially a free gift from the international community.
So no mystery there. The non-response of the ‘public interest’ NGO movement is more puzzling on the face of it. But perhaps the answer is not totally dissimilar. These NGOs have no financial stake in WHO and therefore no direct influence on its governance. Many regard the WHO as a forum where they may express their views and the annual World Health Assembly as a perfect gathering of notables in the global health community to pursue advocacy and influence member state delegates. While NGOs may be critical of the WHO, as in the case of Ebola, they also hold it in great esteem as the one international organization with the responsibility of striving for “the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health”. The NGO mindset is therefore to seek to defend this noble objective and, in particular, protect it from political and commercial pressures which are seen as a threat to this mission.
Moreover the WHO secretariat is generally regarded as providing objective technical leadership and support to member states in a world dominated by governments and corporations whose motivations and interests may run counter to health objectives. For that reason NGOs are generally only likely to be critical of the WHO secretariat if it appears to be supine in its dealings with commercial stakeholders, or with governments deemed to be unduly influenced by commercial rather than public health interests.
At the same time NGOs, notably Oxfam, have campaigned actively for member states to increase their secure funding of WHO to protect its core functions, such as those which support enhanced access to essential medicines. But member states have to date paid little heed.
So it seems that the political preconditions for fundamental reforms of WHO funding and governance are absent. Nevertheless the world badly needs a global body that can take on a leadership role in global health policies and help control disease outbreaks before they turn into international crises. The panic engendered by the Ebola crisis should result in a reality check for all concerned. The WHO reform process, begun 4 years ago, does not seem to be on course to deliver a WHO that can be relied upon as fit for purpose.
Today, 29 September, Cecilia Malmström will be auditioned by the European Parliament (EP) to confirm if she is to become the European Commission’s (EC) new Trade Commissioner. This is a very timely moment for the release of a joint paper by Oxfam and Health Action International Europe (HAI) on the impact of European Union (EU) trade policies on access to medicines, both in Europe and far beyond.
Stakes are high for Ms. Maelstrom who will be leading the EC Directorate-General for Trade’s (DG-Trade) agenda for the next five years. This will include negotiating Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with other countries on behalf of EU Members States. She will be especially in the spotlight over the negotiation of the controversial FTA between the EU and the US that will affect millions of people: the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
Leaked documents clearly show that the TTIP is a huge threat to European public health systems, due to its clear favouring of pharmaceutical companies’ commercial interests. One objective of the Pharmaceutical lobby is patent harmonization based on US law. This would mean more patents and less generic competition, thus more monopolies and unaffordable medicines. Another item on Pharma’s negotiating wish list is a ‘voice’ in EU Member States’ pricing and reimbursement policies. Increased companies’ voice in medicine would challenge Member states’ ability to take measures, such as price control, to control expenditure on medicines. Moreover, the Pharma lobby is seeking to restrict public access to clinical trials data, undermining the EU’s recent efforts to foster transparency in this area.
One of the TTIP’s most controversial elements is the inclusion of an Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism. ISDS gives foreign investors the right to sue governments for compensation if laws, policies, court decisions or other actions interfere with expected profits from investments. Governments’ actions such as price control or patentability standards could be challenged in court. While it may seem extreme, this threat is far from hypothetical. Following the legitimate invalidation of two of its patents, the American pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly is suing Canada for 500 million Canadian dollars compensation under the North American Free Trade Agreement ISDS provision.
More worryingly still, the impact of the TTIP will not stop at EU or US borders. The TTIP would set a new global standard for strict intellectual property (IP) protection around the world, which could be imposed on developing countries through other trade deals.
FTAs have regularly been used by DG-Trade to introduce strict investment and IP rules (so-called “TRIPS-plus” measures), which go beyond the internationally-agreed IP standards set by the World Trade Organization. Such standards promote the commercial interests of the pharmaceutical industry even at the expense of public health. (See the EC’s latest document on the pharmaceutical industry).
The EC’s brand new strategy on IP enforcement in third countries explicitly describes IP as a means to boost Research and Development (R&D) and economic growth in the EU, ignoring how IP can also hinder innovation and competition. The proposed measures to enhance the enforcement of IP rights include FTAs and the identification of “priority countries”, as per the notorious US Special 301 report. The EU list includes India and Thailand, two countries which have sought to balance IP rules and public health needs. The list foresees possible financial sanctions for countries repeatedly “infringing” IP rights. Sanctions could include restricting third countries’ participation in, or funding from, specific EU-funded programmes.
India and Thailand have bitter experiences of the EC heavy-handed approach to IP rights. Negotiations for a FTA between the EC and India started in 2009 and are currently on hold. India’s progressive IP law only grants patents for ”real” innovation (i.e. it rejects patents on products too similar to an existing product). This has allowed the country’s vibrant generic pharmaceutical sector to play an important role in driving the prices of medicines down in developing countries. As “the pharmacy of the developing world”, India provides over 80 percent of the world’s generic anti-retroviral medicines to treat HIV/AIDS. The EC’s attempt to impose TRIPs-plus provisions in the EU-India FTA caused a great outcry throughout the world, thankfully forcing the EC to backtrack on some of the most controversial provisions.
Yet, despite the EC’s commitment to stop pushing for TRIPS-plus measures in subsequent FTAs, the FTA being negotiated with Thailand since March 2013 (also currently on hold due to the military coup) contained similar controversial provisions. Instead of supporting Thailand’s good track record of pro-public health policies and its use of TRIPs flexibilities to improve access to medicines, the EC tried to stop Thailand’s use of these legal, internationally-agreed measures.
Negotiations with both countries will resume in the near future.
DG Trade – aligned with the pharmaceutical industry- portrays IP as the panacea to boost investments in R&D, thus justifying the inclusion of TRIPs-plus provisions in FTAs. However, it is clear that the current R&D system, which relies heavily on the profits generated by expensive, unaffordable medicines to provide incentives for innovation, fails to meet public health needs.
The current Ebola crisis and the controversy surrounding wildly unaffordable new medicines to treat Hepatitis C, clearly illustrate the R&D crisis. No medicines or vaccines are currently available to deal with the Ebola virus due to the lack of a market incentive; Ebola only affects some of the world’s poorest countries, where no company could ever make a profit. In the meantime, the pharmaceutical company Gilead priced its new and highly-effective medicine to treat Hepatitis C (marketed as Sovaldi) at $84,000 for a 12-week course. Even the discounted price that Gilead offered to some countries is still too high to treat all patients.
This raises serious questions about a system based on monopoly that keeps effective medicines from reaching the people that need them. Clearly alternative R&D models which are geared to address health needs must urgently be explored.
The coming five years represent an important opportunity for the EU to lead on trade and R&D policies which meet health needs, and which don’t favour commercial interests over patients’ needs.
Oxfam and HAI Europe urge the future Trade Commissioner Cecilia Maelstrom, to resist the pharmaceutical lobby and to ensure trade policies are aligned with the EU’s development and (global) health objectives. To reach this aim, DG Trade should ensure better coherence and coordination of work with other DGs. The newly elected parliament must ensure that EU trade and R&D policies prioritise access to medicines for all citizens around the world.
 For a detailed analysis, see: Commons Network, HAI et al. (2014) ‘The Trans Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP): A Civil Society response to the Big Pharma Wish list’, joint position paper, http://www.prescrire.org/Docu/DOCSEUROPE/20140324CivilSocietyResponseBigPharmaWishList_final.pdf
 C. Gerstetter, M. Mehling, A. Eberle and K. Salès (2013) ‘Legal implications of the EU-US trade and investment partnership (TTIP) for the Acquis Communautaire and the ENVI relevant sectors that could be addressed during negotiations’, EP Directorate General for Internal Policies, http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/etudes/join/2013/507492/IPOL-ENVI_ET(2013)507492_EN.pdf
 See USTR website: http://www.ustr.gov/about-us/press-office/press-releases/2014/April/USTR-Releases-Annual-Special-301-Report-on-Intellectual-Property-Rights
 In 2001, the WTO ministerial conference adopted the Doha Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health. It affirms that the WTO rules on IP should not prevent countries from taking measures to protect public health.
Doha Ministerial Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health, WT/MIN(01)/DEC/W/2, 14 November 2001, http://www.wto.org/english/thewto_e/minist_e/min01_e/mindecl_trips_e.htm
Question: What do the following have in common?
One answer might be that these projects are not designed to deliver health services for the poorest sections of the population. The Lagos insurance scheme excludes all informal sector workers, while one IVF cycle at The Bridge Clinic costs $4,600.
A second might be that both projects make a deeply questionable contribution towards a country’s attainment of Universal Health Coverage (UHC), given their provision of services to small, predominantly urban, and comparatively wealthy elite.
A third is that they have both benefited from investments made as part of the International Finance Corporation’s (IFC) Health In Africa Initiative.
Health In Africa is a $1 billion investment project launched by the IFC in 2008, which aimed to ‘catalyze sustained improvements in access to quality health-related goods and services in Africa [and] financial protection against the impoverishing effects of illness’, through harnessing the potential of the private health sector. Specifically, it sought to improve access to capital for private health companies, and to help governments incorporate the private sector into their overall health care system. Health In Africa would do this through three mechanisms: an equity vehicle, a debt facility, and technical assistance. Perhaps of most importance, the initiative would make extra efforts to ‘improve the availability of health care to Africa’s poor and rural population’.
Emanating from the World Bank Group, Health In Africa’s focus on delivering health care for people living in poverty makes sense. Anything contrary would be at odds with the Bank’s mandate and overarching goal to end extreme poverty by 2030. Oxfam welcomes World Bank President Jim Kim’s emphasis on the centrality of achieving Universal Health Coverage (UHC) to see this goal attained, and the Bank’s target to deliver health care for the poorest 40% by 2020.
However, it seems that with the Health In Africa initiative, the IFC may be working deeply at odds to these stated World Bank aims. Today, Oxfam launched Investing for the Few, analysing the investments made as part of Health In Africa to date. Oxfam’s assessment of the sporadic investment information available finds that far from delivering health care for the poorest, Health In Africa has favoured high-end urban hospitals, many of which explicitly target a country’s wealthy and expatriate populations. The initiative’s biggest investment to date has been in South Africa’s second largest private hospital group Life Healthcare. This $93 million endowment no doubt supported the company in its subsequent expansion (Life Healthcare acquired a 26% stake in one of India’s largest hospital groups in 2011), but there is no evidence it has used this investment to expand access to health care for the 85% of South Africans without health insurance.
Oxfam’s findings show that Health In Africa has also failed to deliver expansion of health care at any sufficient scale or pace to meaningfully contribute towards UHC. Instead the initiative has supported high-cost, low-impact investments. The Lagos health insurance scheme mentioned above cost triple the annual Nigerian government per capita health expenditure for example, and took over five years to secure fewer than 9,000 enrolees. In Nigeria, scaling up to reach UHC at this rate would take over 100,000 years.
Another major concern is the absence of sufficient attempts by Health In Africa to measure its performance. The initiative’s own mid-term evaluation found Health In Africa had failed to define and assess its anticipated results, and that the performance indicators it has used are inadequate to measure any development impact. Whilst an equity fund employed by Health In Africa boasts of its success at reaching patients at the so-called ‘base of the pyramid’, one of the annual income targets used to define this group include all but the top five per cent of earners in sub-Saharan Africa. It is likely Health in Africa’s use of financial intermediaries contributes to this failure to effectively measure impact on poor women and men. Such an arms-length approach to investment brings inherent problems around oversight and transparency.
Oxfam is clear that the IFC must improve the transparency and accountability of the Health In Africa initiative. Our report calls on the IFC to cease all Health In Africa investments until a robust, transparent and accountable framework is put in place to ensure that the initiative is pro-poor, and geared towards meeting unmet need. In addition, it calls on the World Bank Group to conduct a full review of the IFC’s operations and impact to date in the health sector in low- and middle-income countries, to investigate how they are aligned with, and are accountable to, the overarching goals of the World Bank Group: to end extreme poverty and promote shared prosperity.
The IFC needs to fundamentally rethink its activities in health, and ensure any potential projects are aligned with the Bank’s goals. The World Bank Group should focus on supporting African governments to expand publicly provided health care – a proven way to save millions of lives worldwide.