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World AIDS Day: Lessons for reversing inequality by Mark Goldring, Oxfam UK Executive Director


Today is World AIDS Day, a day to celebrate the many lives saved and to remember the many lost to the HIV virus. Importantly it is a day to reflect on what we have learnt from working to address the inequality challenges of the HIV epidemic. This is particularly critical for civil society, and others, working to reverse inequality. I will focus here on 4 lessons:

Lesson one: Inequality kills. Millions have died because they were too poor to pay the exorbitant prices of medicines & hospital fees. Investing in public health systems to offer free service as the point of use and in affordable medicines are essential to save lives and tackle inequality – both health inequalities and crucially, economic inequality.

We must remember that it was civil society movements that put pressure on pharmaceutical companies and created the environment for Indian companies to compete and thus slash the price of HIV medicines from $10,000 to around $ 100/ person /year leading to the over 18 million people on treatment now. Inequality in access to medicines affects millions all over the world. A big cause of this inequality is the global system of biomedical research and pricing, which leaves critical decisions on medicines- basically the decision on who lives and who dies – in the hands of pharmaceutical companies. This system needs re-thinking to ensure availability of the medicines we need at affordable prices.

Therefore, the recommendations of the UN Secretary General high level panel on medicines published just a couple of months ago are a great step in the right direction to ensure that the research and development (R&D) system produces affordable medicines for people who need them. We hope for the UK leadership in implementing these recommendations. We see interdependence between progress on the issue of anti-microbial resistance (on which we have seen magnificent leadership from the UK government) and delivery on the UN panel recommendations to transform the R&D system for accessing medicines.






The second lesson is related to a critical dimension of inequality, which is accessing health services. A big lesson from HIV is that its services are fundamentally free and thus saving the lives of the 18 million people who are on treatment. This must extend to all health services. Paying for health care pushes 100 million people into poverty each year. One billion people are denied health care because they can’t afford to pay. Health services free at the point of use are critical to prevent this situation and to enable people to stay healthy and productive – thus improving livelihoods and economic growth. Women bear the brunt of paying for health care as they have to care for sick family members and they are the last to access paying services. Recently the UN statistical group mandated to frame the indicators to measure the Sustainable Development Goals, agreed on the indicator that measures the financial protection arm of Universal Health Coverage. The indicator 3.8.2 will measure what really matters: the out of pocket expenditure on healthcare. Again, civil society has been instrumental in establishing this indicator.

ِِِِAccess to HIV treatment could not happen without securing adequate financing. This is the third lesson. Thanks to domestic and donors funding like the Global Fund, poor and marginalised people can access the services.

Building resilient health systems that provide services needed for HIV, other diseases including non communicable diseases and emerging infections, requires adequate and sustainable financing. Public financing is critical – there is now consensus across the global health community that all governments must push forward urgently on achieving universal health coverage. At the core of the consensus is an understanding that an increase in public financing for health is a non negotiable ingredient for success.

Oxfam campaigns on tax reforms as a fundamental solution to raising additional needed revenue and at the same time redressing extreme economic inequality. However, few low and lower middle income countries have sufficient resources, even with significant tax reform, to pay for health care for all. Aid should be provided in the right way – supporting the expansion and improvement of public health systems, the removal of fees and the scale up of the health work force

It’s a worrying trend that the marginalised and vulnerable in middle income countries are being left behind as a direct result of the trend of withdrawing development assistance from these countries. This is clearly illustrated in the negative impact on HIV programmes that is supporting marginalised groups and civil society advocacy. Donors have a responsibility to transform their support in a way that addresses the needs of marginalised groups.

Last but not least, active citizenship – people’ involvement in decision making has been a great driving force to overcome discrimination and the marginalisation of women, sexual minorities and other marginalised groups. This is at the heart of the success in the response to HIV and is at the heart of our inequality campaign

These four factors require the world to make long term commitments to investment in R&D, in free public services and in enabling community and civil society participation in decision making and in monitoring the commitments of governments, donors and international agencies. This is critical if the world leaders are serious about leaving no one behind.


A victory today for Universal Health Coverage- Statement from Oxfam

We are delighted to announce a victory for the drive for universal health coverage.  We will now be able to count the cost of paying for healthcare for  households around the world. It is truly exciting that in a couple of years we could have sound global data on what kinds of health financing mechanisms are most effective for leaving no one behind in healthcare. Armed with this, we can call for policy changes to achieve more equity in health and prevent the 100 million people currently being pushed into poverty each year paying for health care.

Today, the group of experts tasked with developing the indicator framework to measure progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), have agreed to measure financial risk protection of universal health coverage by ‘’proportion of the population with large household expenditures on health as a share of total household expenditure or income”. This signals a great shift in from the previous dangerous indicator that would just measure population with access to health insurance or a public health system.

The previous indicator was flawed because it did not measure whether or not people were actually financially protected against potentially catastrophic costs for health care. It would have also failed to measure progress across different income groups or by gender. It was also dangerous as it sent a signal to governments around the world that health insurance was the route to achieving Universal Health Coverage despite robust and scientific evidence that many voluntary health insurance schemes have exacerbated inequality.
A global campaign was mobilized to replace the dangerous indicator with one which ‘measures what matters’.

In a campaign largely coordinated by Oxfam, civil society organisations, academics, development agencies and statistical authorities expressed their deep concerns with letters, lobbying and public statements. Now we can celebrate a step closer to universal health coverage that leads to everyone accessing the quality health services they need without being pushed, or pushed further, into poverty.


Will the SDG indicator group make Universal Health Coverage indicator fit-for-purpose? by Anna Marriott, Public Services Policy Manager, Oxfam


In March this year we posted a blog on global health check about a dangerous and surprising last minute change to the indicator measuring financial risk protection for Universal Health Coverage (UHC), being developed by the Inter-Agency Expert Group on the Sustainable Development Goals (IAEG-SDGs). The IAEG is meeting in Geneva this week and aims to conclude discussions on this indicator (3.8.2), along with some of the other contentious indicators they have identified within the SDGs global indicator framework.

Since we reported on the danger of the nonsensical indicator undermining the highly valued SDG target on achieving UHC (that gives everyone access to quality health services, without causing impoverishment), the global health community has mobilized in large numbers to call for the reinstatement of the original indicator or a revised version of it, as proposed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and World Bank (WB). Here are a few highlights of the actions from a range of constituent communities with a stake in this issue over the past few months:

  • As an immediate reaction to the changed indicator, over 300 NGOs wrote to the IAEG-SDGs last February calling for the new indicator 3.8.2 to be immediately revoked and replaced
  • Executive Director of Oxfam International Winnie Byanyima made this statement also in support of the WHO/WB proposed indicator
  • In the IAEG’s own open consultation in September 2016 on the possible refinement of global indicators, significantly more responses [144] were received on indicator 3.8.2 than the next most popular indicator [92] and 70% of respondents favoured the WHO/WB proposed indicator. Importantly, 62% of these respondents were explicit that the WHO/WB indicator should replace and not be in addition to the current flawed indicator.
  • In the run up to this week’s IAEG-SDGs meeting, another CSO letter signed by 98 organisations called for the current immediate replacement of 3.8.2 with the WHO/WB proposed indicator
  • This week 351 health academics and researchers from 62 countries have written directly to the members of the IAEG-SDGs expressing their concerns with the current indicator and calling for its replacement with the WHO/WB supported indicator. This letter is published in the Lancet.

The motivation for all this is to warn against keeping the current indicator whether on its own or in combination with the WHO/WB refined indicator. The current – flawed – indicator to measure financial risk protection for UHC reads:

    ‘coverage by health insurance or a public health system per 1,000      population.

The reasons this is not fit for purpose are manifold:

  • -Coverage by health insurance or a public health system does not equate to financial protection
  • -There is no universal meaning or definition of health insurance.
  • -Numerous schemes have actually widened inequalities e.g. voluntary insurance for only those who can pay
  • -It risks promoting voluntary insurance schemes against a large body of significant and robust evidence that such schemes do not advance UHC. This is not the job of the IAEG-SDGs
  • -Every citizen is theoretically covered by a public health system rendering the data meaningless

As an illustration of these flaws see the stories of Ranu and Esther.


Thankfully the IAEG is considering the alternative WHO/WB proposed indicator – one that is based on a global consensus following extensive consultation over a 3 year period. This alternative reads:

“Proportion of the population with large household expenditures on health, as a total share of household expenditure or consumption.”

This is relevant to the UHC target, as it directly measures the financial impact on households of the costs of health services. It is methodologically sound and grounded in an internationally agreed standard definition which is scientifically robust and policy neutral. Information and data is readily available from routine household surveys conducted by national statistical offices (e.g. Budget Surveys, Income and Expenditure Surveys, Living Standards Measurement Surveys) to support calculations. Furthermore, it is amenable to disaggregation on income, gender and geographical location.

A risk remains that in an attempt to reach agreement the IAEG members will include the WHO/WB proposed indicator as an addition rather than replacement to the flawed indicator. This is unacceptable for all the reasons above but also because countries are already straining with the weight of the SDG measurement framework and it would be a waste of their precious resources. Any data issued by governments using this indicator as a measure will be useless and thus easily ignored by health and statistical experts such as the 351 signatories who signed the health academics letter, the 100s of NGOs who’ve signed letters on this, and the 22 statistical authorities who submitted to the online submission. It would work to counter the hard won global consensus and huge momentum on UHC. And the losers would be all those currently left behind by their own national health systems – those like Raju and Esther who face the stark consequences of paying out of pocket for their health care.

To avoid this danger, the current indicator must be taken off the table completely. Instead of keeping this wasteful indicator, let’s measure what really matters: the impact of health spending on households.



The race to UHC – How Malawi has outperformed most in Africa but risks going off course by Robert Yates

In September 2015, all countries committed themselves to a new set of sustainable development goals (SDGs). One of the targets to achieve the health SDG is Universal Health Coverage (UHC), whereby everybody receives the health services they need without suffering financial hardship[i]. Across the world, countries are recognizing that achieving UHC requires a publicly financed health system to ensure risk pooling where healthy and wealthy members of society subsidize services for the sick and the poor[ii]. Conversely, a privately-financed, free market in health services has proven that it will never achieve UHC – a fact which has now been recognized by experts and agencies who previously promoted private health financing[iii].

Countries such as Thailand, Sri Lanka and Costa Rica have demonstrated that the key to achieving UHC is to replace private voluntary health financing (user fees and private insurance) with compulsory public financing (in particular tax financing). This not only improves people’s access to health services it also reduces the impoverishing burden of out-of-pocket (OOP) health expenditure[iv].

A country which learnt this lesson before many of its peers is Malawi. Despite only having a GDP per capita of around $350, Malawi was one of the few African countries to achieve MDG 4 in reducing child mortality. This achievement was celebrated in a Lancet Global Health paper[v] which highlighted Malawi’s success in increasing the utilization  of a number of effective health interventions  by children– for example immunizations and treatments for infectious diseases.

However, this analysis didn’t mention a key feature of Malawi’s health system which has made it unique within the continent of Africa: Malawi has been the only country in Sub-Saharan Africa to provide universal free health services throughout its public health system and never charge user fees – with the exception of some recent worrying user fee experiments I have written about here[1]. Having not put in place this demand side barrier, utilization of services has been higher in Malawi which has enabled the country to make faster progress towards the MDGs and UHC[vi].

This is illustrated vividly in the following graph, from WHO Afro Region. The graph illustrates that with a relatively high level of public financing of 5.8% GDP (which includes aid financing) and a no user-fees policy in place in public facilities, Malawi records only a 12% share of total health expenditure in the form of out-of-pocket financing. This is a good proxy measure for the level of financial protection offered by the Malawian health system and it is at a level significantly below the 20% maximum level recommended by WHO.






Conversely in Nigeria, which only spends 0.9% of its GDP in the form of public health financing and where user fees are charged at all levels, private out-of-pocket health financing accounts for 72% of total health expenditure – one of the highest rates in the world. At these levels of OOP payments not only are millions of Nigerians being impoverished by health care costs or prevented from accessing vital healthcare altogether, considerable human rights violations are also resulting where many people are detained in health units because they can’t pay their hospital bills[vii]. This latter phenomenon is unheard of in Malawian public hospitals.

But perhaps the most stark illustration of the difference in performance between these two countries at the opposite ends of this curve, is that whereas Nigeria is 8 times richer than Malawi, Nigeria’s child mortality rate (109 deaths per 1000 live births) is 70% higher than Malawi ’s (64 deaths).

In reviewing these records, the obvious policy recommendation for Nigeria is that it too should increase its public health spending and abolish user fees in its public health system. And for Malawi, the lesson should be to build on this success and use further increases in public financing to improve the availability and quality of free services.

The Government of Malawi’s recent policy announcement to implement service level agreements which will fund selected CHAM[2] facilities to provide free services will be an excellent way to fulfill this objective. Needless to say, if Malawi wants to stay ahead of the pack, it should scrap the hospital bypass fees that have been introduced recently, and certainly ignore the siren calls to introduce user fees more broadly in the public health system. This would simply take the country up the curve to join those where poor people don’t access health services because they can’t afford them, and where more children die before their fifth birthday.


[1] And a very brief period in 1964, when a misguided expatriate advisor persuaded the government to introduce fees. However, following extensive public demonstrations President Banda soon reversed this policy to restore universal free services

[2] Christian Health Association of Malawi

[i] United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 3.8  Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform website available at: accessed 28 July 2016

[ii] Yates R Universal Health Coverage: progressive taxes are key

The Lancet , Volume 386 , Issue 9990 , 227 – 229 Available at: accessed 28 July 2016

[iii] Lane R 2013 Dean Jamison – Putting economics at the heart of global health The Lancet Vol. 382, No. 9908 Available at: Accesed 28 July 2016

[iv] Evans TG et al Thailand’s Universal Coverage Scheme: Achievements and Challenges. An independent assessment of the first 10 years (2001-2010). Nonthaburi, Thailand: Health Insurance System

[v] Kanyuka, Mercy et al. Malawi and Millennium Development Goal 4: a Countdown to 2015 country case study The Lancet Global Health , Volume 4 , Issue 3 , e201 – e214 Available at: Accessed 28 July 2016

[vi] Yates R, Child mortality in Malawi The Lancet Global Health , Volume 4 , Issue 7 , e444 Available at Accessed 28 July 2016

[vii] Agbonkhese J FG urged to end detention of women in hospitals nationwide Vanguard online 2 February 2015 Available at Accessed 28 July 2016


Last minute change to the UHC indicator for the SDGs is raising alarm bells! by Anna Marriott and Mohga Kamal-Yanni

303 organisations including NGOs, academic institutions, foundations and patients groups have reacted with alarm at a last minute proposed change to the indicator used to measure financial protection for health under the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG). We understand the World Health Organisation and World Bank are similarly concerned. While maybe sounding technical or trivial, if the new indicator for Universal Health Coverage (UHC) is left unchanged it could lead to more not less exclusion of women, marginalised groups and people living in poverty from the health care they need and have a right to receive. As such, those responsible for decision making within the SDG process have an urgent responsibility to act.

The hope is that the groups responsible for finalising the indicators and associated methodologies (the UN Inter-Agency Expert Group and UN Statistics Division) will take the opportunity of a meeting taking place tomorrow and until 11th March in New York to urgently review and amend this dangerous and counter-productive newly proposed indicator. Failing to do so could mean an enormous and unprecedented opportunity to advance Universal Health Coverage globally will be lost.

How did we get here?

The SDG target for UHC is to “Achieve UHC, including financial risk protection, access to quality essential health care services and access to safe, effective, quality and affordable essential medicines and vaccines for all”.

The WHO and World Bank worked intensively for three years in consultation with the health experts in governments, academia and civil society to define and measure UHC. This work included: data to be collected, how to collect it and the feasibility of collecting standardised data that allow measures to be compared across time, populations and countries.

It was agreed after a lot of haggling with different parties that UHC could be measured using a minimum of two indicators – one for coverage of essential health services and one for financial protection. Although the indicators developed by the WHO and World Bank were not perfect, there appeared to be a consensus across the global health community to accept and support the results of their work.

It therefore came as a shock that a radical and regressive last minute change was made to the proposed indicator for financial protection by the UN Inter Agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators (IAEG) at their most recent meeting at the end of February. The proposed indicator was changed from:

Fraction of the population protected against catastrophic/impoverishing out-of-pocket health expenditure”


“Number of people covered by health insurance or a public health system per 1000 population”

A letter sent last Monday 29th February by 260 organisations (and now supported by 303 and counting) to the IAEG group members called for urgent action to revoke the proposed new indicator and revert back to the original indicator agreed by the WHO and World Bank.

What’s the fuss about?

The purpose of the financial protection indicator (number 3.8.2) is simple: to find out if there is progress being made regarding people accessing health services without falling into poverty (if they are not poor), or falling into deeper poverty (if they are already poor). The indicator must also be able to fulfil the SDG commitment to measure progress across disaggregated groups, especially for those on the lowest incomes and across marginalised groups.

The proposed new indicator is not just meaningless with regard to measuring financial protection for health, it’s also dangerous. In reality it could measure as so-called ‘progress’ an actual increase rather than decrease in impoverishing and catastrophic health expenditure by households.

Problems with using health insurance coverage as an indicator include:

  • Health insurance has no universal meaning or definition and therefore doesn’t work for cross-country comparisons;
  • Insurance is not a measure or guarantee of financial risk protection – in a number of countries the introduction of insurance schemes has not reduced out of pocket payments or provided protection against catastrophic health expenditure
  • What package of services is covered under an insurance scheme can vary enormously thereby potentially not protecting households against costs associated with a wide range of diagnosis, treatment and care services
  • There are numerous examples where insurance can widen inequalities (e.g. voluntary insurance that excludes people with pre-existing conditions or those unable to pay or social health insurance when only for the formal sector, thereby excluding the majority of people in low and middle income countries who work in the informal sector);
  • Dangerously the proposed indicator risks promoting voluntary insurance schemes against a large body of significant and robust academic evidence that such schemes do not advance UHC
  • Data disaggregation by income groups or other forms is not universally possible

Problems with using coverage by a public health system per 1000 population as an indicator include:

Whilst health insurance coverage as an indicator is dangerous, the alternative – ‘coverage by a public health system’ – is simply meaningless and not objectively measurable. Citizens in many countries may have a legal entitlement to a public health system but still have to make substantial payments to access services.

A colleague from India summed up the absurdity of the proposed new indicator better than I:

“This is quite ridiculous for a country like India. The ‘number of people covered by a public health system’ in India is always 100% as per government policy and programme plans! As regards coverage by health insurance, it is assumed that if covered by insurance all expenses are taken care of. It obviously is not often the case.”

The change we hope to see in the next few days

A series of meetings will take place in New York between 8th and 11th March where the members of the UN Statistics Division and the IAEG will aim to review and finalise the status of the indicators and the methodologies to measure them. We are hopeful that given the united call of so many organisations in support of the indicators developed by the World Bank and the WHO, that the members will review and amend indicator 3.8.2. This should not be a political issue but a methodological one – we need an indicator that measures improved financial protection for health. The current proposal fails to do that.

For those organisations wishing to sign on to our joint letter calling for action to revise this dangerous indicator please add your organisational name and contact details via the following link:


Global Health Check is edited by Anna Marriott, Health Policy Advisor for Oxfam GB, and welcomes contributions from different authors. If you would like to write an article for this site or if you have any queries please contact: