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Ensuring universal health coverage for the informal sector, poor and vulnerable groups

Early September, the East Mediterranean Regional Office of the WHO (EMRO) held a regional meeting on Expanding Universal Health Coverage to the informal sector, poor and vulnerable groups in September in Cairo. The meeting was one in a series of the EMRO strategy to support countries in implementing universal health coverage (UHC).

The aim of the meeting was to help countries devise national roadmaps to expand health coverage to the populations that face hardship in accessing healthcare. This aim was to be achieved via sharing global, regional and country experiences in advancing UHC, exploring political processes and structural and cultural factors involved and promoting a better understanding of UHC monitoring. This blog covers a number of key issues that were debated during the meeting.

The informal sector, poor and vulnerable groups

There was a debate about definition and identification of these populations. The region has groups such as migrant workers in the Gulf States, who may not fit with the ILO definition of the informal sector. The region also hosts millions of refugees, some of which maintained that status for decades e.g. Palestinians in Gaza, while millions of Syrian refugees are now living in Lebanon and Jordan.

Vulnerable groups are sometimes “unseen” and therefore their needs are not addressed. These include disabled people, especially those with intellectual disabilities, female and children headed households and street children. In general the informal sector population makes up the majority in most countries and therefore their health coverage has to be at the heart of any plans for UHC.

Country capacity to identify these populations is weak and the politics of targeting is complex and may have political cost. The real question is about the cost-effectiveness of governments’ focusing on identifying and registering populations in order to target services versus national funding of a basic benefit package that is available for everybody where all sectors of society can benefit.

Health financing in the region

The region is classified into three groups: group 1 comprises high-income countries e.g the Gulf States, group 2 are middle-income countries including Egypt, Iraq and Morocco. The third group of low-income countries includes Afghanistan, Somalia and Djibouti.

The percentage of government spending on health to total government expenditure in EMRO’ low and middle-income countries (LMICs) is low: on average 8% compared to the global average 11%. Out-of-pocket (OOP) spending is very high in the region even in countries that have health insurance schemes, leading to poverty and financial hardship. For example despite high insurance coverage in Iran, OOP represents 52.1% of the total health expenditure.

There is a recent interest in implementing or expanding existing social health insurance (SHI). Yet countries which have made progress towards UHC have relied on government funding. For example, Turkey introduced a Green Card to cover the informal sector, 70% of its costs is covered [1]by the government. This was accompanied with increased public expenditure on health. Turkey is merging the SHI and green card financing in order to provide a comprehensive package. The result is decreasing OOP to 17%.

Most social insurance schemes work separately and cross subsidisation is rare. Multiple schemes build inequality via different premiums and benefit packages and it is difficult to harmonise the schemes.

A number of countries and especially high-income countries choose a model of health insurance and are trying to extend premium payment and coverage to migrant workers. Private insurance is increasing in some countries such as Jordan where 25 companies provide private insurance. However there is no data on the effectiveness, efficiency and equity of the schemes.

Low-income countries are struggling to provide UHC. As aid- dependent countries there are questions about the responsibility of donors for long-term predictable financing to build strong public health sectors in these countries.

The evidence and discussions during the meeting clearly illustrated the fundamental role of government financing of health care to extend UHC to the informal sector, poor and vulnerable groups.

Delivery of healthcare

Reliance on the private sector to deliver healthcare is widely spread in the region. The range within the private sector varies from unqualified, unregulated provider to five-star hospitals – also often unregulated.

While there was near consensus at the meeting on the necessity of public financing to cover poor people, the informal sector and vulnerable groups, there was no consensus on modes of delivering the service. The role of the private sector was mentioned as “important” without defining that role. Yet evidence from successful countries such as Thailand and Sri Lanka show the importance of a strong public sector in providing UHC and the limited role of the private sector in achieving that goal.

Some commentators also suggested that separating purchasing from provision was an important part of extending coverage. However, there was a warning of the lack of evidence that such a split is more effective or more efficient in delivering health care than the direct financing and delivery within the public sector, and that indeed, often the reverse is true.

Questions were raised about governments’ capacity to manage contracts with and to regulate the private sector. Even high-income countries such as Australia face huge questions around whether the public are getting a good deal from the private sector. The South Africa experience shows the difficulties in regulating the escalating cost of the private sector. 80% of South Africans rely on the public sector. The private sector services 20% of South Africans yet consumes 60% of the total health spending[2].


There was general agreement during the close of the conference that country experiences point to a number of essential ingredients for expanding UHC to cover the informal sector, poor and vulnerable groups including:

  1. Strong political will: health was a political priority in countries that progressed towards UHC. Public demand (in Turkey) for healthcare was also influential in getting government’ commitment
  2. A “new” consensus that poor people, even collectively, cannot pay for their health care. UHC requires predominately public funding in a big pool (e.g. from tax). Extensive pooling leads to maximum redistribution of resources. No country has ever achieved UHC without heavy public expenditure. Even rich countries such as Japan, Germany and France increasingly rely of budget subsidy. Some commentators concluded from the World Bank study that Thailand and Mexico need to follows the example of Portugal and Spain by eliminating payroll payment and opting for tax finance. Chile has succeeded by delinking entitlement from the employment status
  3. The priority of UHC is providing services for the entire population then incrementally increase the scope of those services
  4. There are two ways to finance UHC: a) a functioning National Health Service based on tax financing, or b) public financing (budget transfer) into a national SHI to cover informal sector, poor and vulnerable groups. An important starting point is providing a standard package through all schemes whether based on insurance or public funding
  5. Financial accessibility is a necessary but not sufficient for UHC. Quality of service is of equal importance
  6. Countries’ claims of increased population coverage need to be backed up by objective assessments, in terms of: enhanced financial protection and quality and effective service coverage


[1] Country presentation at EMRO meeting in Cairo

[2]Country presentation at the EMRO meeting in Cairo



Financing for development: More money into India’s public healthcare system by: Oommen C. Kurian. Photo credit: Srikanth Kolari


Out of pocket (OOP) expenditures push an estimated Sixty million Indians into poverty every year.

As the Financing for Development Conference in Addis Ababa ends, we present the case for financing health care in India. India is losing vast sums of potential tax money that could finance universal health coverage (UHC) while at the same time decreasing the health budget and promoting private finance and delivery of health services. A recent Oxfam India paper explores available evidence around financing healthcare for all in India and offers recommendations.

1.    The potential for tax funding

Free services like healthcare and education are vital to fight poverty and inequality yet India is being denied the resources to fund them. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that developing countries are three times more vulnerable to base erosion and profit shifting activities[1] of multinational companies- they lose 0.84% of GDP in the short run, compared to 0.23% lost by OECD countries. Recent research covering 1500 Multi-National Companies (MNCs) in India showed that those with links to tax havens reported 1.5 % less profit than those with no such links – a strong indication that the former are engaged in profit shifting (a global euphemism for cheating) more intensively than those with no tax haven links.

A study in 2013 showed that according to official sources, the amounts involved in mispricing –manipulation by over-invoicing of imports and under-invoicing of exports- in India ran at US$8.1bn in 2010-11, escalating to US$12.6bn in 2011-12. Corporation tax of 33% on these amounts would have provided US$6.9bn that could have helped fund free quality public services for all in India.

The Indian government can raise funds to invest in public services from a better tax system. The latest report from Global Financial Integrity lists India among the top five countries in the world with almost half a trillion dollars lost in illicit outflows in the past decade alone. Just to compare, India’s annual central expenditure on health and rural housing put together is $ 5.4billion.

India’s tax to GDP ratio is among the lowest of all G20 countries- far below other BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). Moreover, the revenue foregone due to tax exemptions by the central government is estimated to be 43.2% of total tax revenue for the year 2014-15, or nearly 5% of India’s GDP. This shows that there indeed are alternative sources that can generate more resources for health.

2.    Current financing model and the impact on service use

Yet in India, there are extremely worrying trends of budget cuts and a focus on insurance as the way to achieve UHC.

Out of pocket (OOP) expenditures push an estimated 60 million Indians into poverty every year. User charges still remain in the public healthcare system. The overall public spending hovers at about 1% of GDP – the corresponding figures are around 4.5% for Brazil and 8% for the United Kingdom. During 1986-87, about 60% of the hospitalised cases were treated by the government institutions in urban and rural areas. In 2004, this figure fell to about 40%, reflecting the poor public spending on health[2]. Fortunately, the following decade saw focused attention on rural areas through increased health spending on improving infrastructure in rural India, which is slowly yielding results. Most deliveries across urban and rural areas are now taking place in government hospitals as the following chart shows.

This is a remarkable result given that government funded schemes across the country offered incentives to deliveries in private sector facilities. It shows that people’ trust in the public sector has improved.

Deliveries in Government Hospitals in India as a Percentage of Total (Sample Registration System, India)

The shift towards demand side financing was based on a rationale from survey findings during 1987-2004. The argument that even the poor preferred the private sector by 2004 however ignores the fact that this was a period when the public sector was systematically starved of resources and market principles were introduced into the system. Forgone care due to financial reasons had doubled between 1986-87 and 2004, from 15% in rural and 10% in urban areas to 28% and 20% respectively. Data for more recent years will be available by next year.

The spending cuts on public services in the central budget of 2015-16 are deeply concerning. Not only was the total allocations for health cut by about $945 million, but other budget cuts would affect peoples’ health too. For example the allocation to the child nutrition scheme was cut by half. At the same time, according to latest available estimates, 48% of children under the age of five are stunted due to chronic under-nutrition, with 70% being anaemic.

3.    Where the money should be spent: The privatisation trend

Unfortunately, there seems to be a trend against expansion of public sector provision of service especially from influential think tanks such as Niti Aayog, which just replaced India’s Planning Commission[3]. A recent book co-authored by Niti Aayog Vice Chairperson advises against any further expansion of free primary, secondary, and tertiary health care services in the public sector. Instead, it advises the government to focus on providing financial resources to the poor so that they can buy services. It even calls for the government to insist on full cost recovery.

Niti Aayog’s latest Working Paper on financing healthcare too veers dangerously towards privatised financing for health care which excludes poor people; unsustainable programs based on Corporate Social Responsibility and Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) without examining the evidence of effectiveness or problems of any of these approaches.

4.    Recommendations

The Oxfam India paper makes the following recommendations for the country’s health system:

  • The public system should be the primary provider of healthcare as the service that can ensure equity and quality reaching rural and remote areas as well as urban areas.
  • The government needs to prepare a clear roadmap for increasing budgetary spending on healthcare to around 5% of GDP. Tax based funding and contribution from the formal sector should finance healthcare. This funding model should address regional health inequities by specific central transfers to the poorer states.
  • Regulation of the private sector must be a government priority. This includes establishing and implementing standard treatment protocols and ensuring quality of care.
  • The central and state governments should implement mechanisms to empower communities to hold the healthcare system accountable in order to ensure equity and quality of healthcare in the public and private sectors.
  • A comprehensive review of the current funding model including various government insurance schemes should be conducted with the aim of future consolidation for a national programme ensuring healthcare for all.

[1] according to the OECD the term refers to tax planning strategies that exploit gaps and mismatches in tax rules to make profits ’disappear’ for tax purposes or to shift profits to locations where there is little or no real activity but the taxes are low, resulting in little or no overall corporate tax being paid.

[2] Still, 60% of all people from the bottom 20% were getting hospitalised in the public sector in 2004.

[3] The Planning Commission was an institution in the Government of India which formulated India’s Five-Year Plans, among other functions.



DFID and the privatisation of health and education by Jessica Hamer, Health Policy Advisor, Oxfam

In recent weeks, two separate reports have been released which critique the trend by DFID to increasingly involve the private sector in development, including the provision of health and education.

The first report by Global Justice Now maps a variety of initiatives supported by DFID to open up health and education markets to private firms – from a £25 million project with Adam Smith International aiming to enrol 50,000 more children in private schools in Kenya, to a £7million partnership with Coca-Cola on girls’ education and training in Nigeria. This latter scheme is part of a broader DFID-Coca-Cola collaboration which openly benefits the company’s sales plans, the report reveals. DFID’s support of HANSHEP – or ‘Harnessing Non State Actors for Better Health for the Poor’ – gets a particular profile too, including through their £35 million contribution to a Public-Private Partnerships advisory facility. DFID’s influence is shown to extend beyond the financial commitments it makes, through its advice to governments as they develop private sector-friendly policies for the delivery of services.

The second report by the UK Government’s aid watchdog, Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI), reviews how DFID is working with the private sector to achieve its mandate to tackle poverty around the world. Worryingly it states that ‘DFID should reassess how it appraises, monitors and evaluates its engagements with business to ensure fitness for purpose and a sharper focus on the poor’ and that ‘In some cases… we are not confident that DFID’s support is additional to what businesses would have done anyway’.

For Oxfam, the dangers of the promotion of privatisation of health and education services, especially in relation to the rising tide of global inequality, are clear. Private services benefit the richest first and foremost, leaving people in poverty behind[i]. When health care is sold through the private sector for example, quality care and medicines are often available only to those who can afford it, while poor people may be forced to rely on low-quality or unqualified care like drug hawkers and grocery shops selling medicines[ii].

Indeed ICAI’s report notes that a survey undertaken of a HANSHEP programme operating in Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria – the African Health Markets for Equity – found ‘that less than 1% of people using facilities supported by AHME were from the bottom income quintile in Ghana and other participating countries’.

Prioritising the private sector can see public services eroded as scarce financial and human resources are diverted from the public to the private system, through an internal ‘brain drain’ and expensive public-private contracts. Oxfam’s exposé of a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) hospital in Lesotho, found that the hospital was costing at least three times the amount of the old public hospital it was built to replace for example, amounting to 51% of the total health budget for the entire country[iii]. The International Finance Corporation (IFC) – manager of the DFID-supported PPP advisory facility mentioned above – advised on this PPP arrangement, reaping a $720,000 ‘success fee’ for its work[iv].

When richer people opt out of public systems for health care and education, they also have minimal interest in promoting spending on public services or demanding better quality, as well as less incentive to pay taxes. Thus a downward spiral of deteriorating quality can be set in motion[v]. The result is a 3 tiered system of five star services for the richest people, and a mixture of deteriorated public and unqualified private providers for the poorest. Inequality and poverty thrive.

The same tiered system also develops in education, where children of rich families often attend elite private schools and universities, while poor and lower-middle class children may have a choice between poor quality private education or deteriorating public schools. DFID, as well as other donors such as the World Bank, has been heavily promoting for-profit “low-cost private schools” for delivering better learning outcomes. However, the evidence on quality in these schools is weak. They rely on untrained teachers, standardization and scripted lessons to keep costs down.  Moreover, we know that any kind of school fees – as well as other related costs like uniforms and transportation – will block access to schooling for children from the poorest families.  Relying on fee-charging schools to deliver education will mean that too many of the world’s future Einsteins and Beethovens will be lost – shut out from accessing a quality education because of their poverty.

Profit-making companies also have clear interests in pushing for their own increased role in social sectors. In South Africa, private health insurance firms have been accused of lobbying against a new National Health Insurance Scheme that promises to provide essential health care for all.[vi] In the USA alone, the pharmaceutical and healthcare sectors spent more than $487m on lobbying in 2013, more than was spent by any other sector[vii].

Debates on the role of public and private actors in health and education are increasingly relevant as the development community prepares for this summer’s Financing for Development (FFD) summit, where mechanisms for financing the new post-2015 development goals will be discussed. A submission led by the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) responding to the draft negotiating text for the Summit, pushes the insertion of new language to promote ‘blended finance’ (public and private) and a bigger role for private finance, including ‘using limited public finance to mobilize private’.  In one shocking suggestion, the submission also advocates for the commitment to ‘move away from harmful, unsustainable [private sector investments]’ to be deleted too.

It is critical that any public funds used to leverage private investment, and private finance generally, comply with development effectiveness principles and be subject to robust environmental and social safeguards, be fully transparent and accountable, and be equitable in risk and benefit sharing between governments, donors and private investors. Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) should be considered only where evidence of effectiveness is abundant and where alternative delivery options are not. Sustainable development criteria for PPPs should be adopted and endorsed by the private sector and by governments. Such criteria should also include the PPP design and implementation process being fully owned by the ostensible beneficiaries, full transparency of contracts and terms, and assessment in terms of equitable and affordable access to infrastructure and services. Oxfam, together with other agencies, have developed a series of sustainable development principles to guide how public-backed private finance is used.

DFID should learn from past experiences and revise its support for private sector financing and delivery of these critical services, prioritising instead investments in strong public services that can deliver universal health coverage and education for all.

[i] Basu et al found that the private sector in health care tends to serve higher socio-economic groups for example. Basu et al (2012) ‘Comparative Performance of Private and Public Healthcare Systems in Low- and Middle-Income Countries: A Systematic Review’, PLoS Medicine, Vol. 9., Issue 6.

[ii] Oxfam (2009) ‘Blind Optimism. Challenging the myths about private health care in poor countries’, pp.10-12,

[iii] Oxfam (2014) ‘A Dangerous Diversion. Will the IFC’s flagship health PPP bankrupt Lesotho’s Ministry of Health?’

[iv] Ibid.

[v] T. Smeeding (2005) ‘Public Policy, Economic Inequality, and Poverty: The United States in Comparative Perspective’, Social Science Quarterly, Vol. 86 (suppl): 955-83.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Oxfam (2015) ‘Wealth: Having It All and Wanting More’.



Universal health: from private coverage to public care

This great new two minute video captures the motivation and the rationale for the movement against a greater role for the private sector in the health care systems of low- and middle-income countries.



The video highlights the manipulation of the Universal Health Coverage agenda to serve the interests of profit making companies while simultaneously starving already crumbling public health services from badly needed investment.




Global Health Versus Private Profit

John Lister is well-known as a researcher, writer and campaigner against cutbacks and privatisation in the NHS. But his new book Global Health Versus Private Profit focuses on the changes taking place in global health care systems. It has received glowing endorsements from a number of specialists in the field, and described as “penetrating, highly readable, and extremely well researched”. We caught up with John and asked him to talk about the book.

Can you sum up the book’s main point in two sentences?

Market-style reforms result in health care systems that are more unequal, more costly, more fragmented and less accountable – but which offer more profits to the private sector. That’s why the question really is whether we want to see global health – or private profit.

Who will be interested in reading the book?

This book is for all those working to achieve universal access to health care, and anyone interested in the evolution of international health and the different ways in which the

I also hope it might be read by some of the people  working for the institutions assessed in the book including the WHO, World Bank (and especially IFC),  for national health care systems and for NGOs and donor agencies.  My analysis is based on research, analysis, literature and evidence, and I would be delighted to see a debate on issues which people find contentious. neoliberal agenda has brought its influence to bear on international health over time.

Global Health versus Private Profit offers a detailed analysis of the main “menu” of market-style reforms to health care systems that have been rolled out in country after country, despite the absence of evidence for their effectiveness, and ignoring the evidence of harm that is being done.

These include the emphasis on competition rather than planning and cooperation, the splitting of health care systems into purchasers and providers, privatisation in various guises – including buying in services from the private sector that were previously delivered by public sector providers – the imposition of user fees, and the focus on health insurance and managed care in place of social provision and universal coverage.

Many of these policies are being implemented in rich countries and poor alike, but they are having the most devastating impact on the poorest. They sap vital resources, dislocate and fragment systems, prevent them from responding to health needs, and obstruct the development of planning.

What evidence does the book bring to light of this conflict between global health and private profit?

Perhaps the most important examples come in the chapter entitled “The Missing Millennium Development Goals” which underlines the massive global gaps in provision of care for the growing elderly population, in mental health care and services for people with physical disabilities.

All of this is health need, but countless millions of people can’t pay a market price for care, and so they are the “customers the private sector doesn’t want”. The longer health care is shaped by the quest for private profit the larger these gaps will become.

So are we just looking at wrong-headed ideas, or is there more to it than that?

My book argues that these so called “reforms” are driven not by evidence, but by ideology – but that behind the ideology is a massive material factor: the insatiable pressure from the private sector which is desperate to recapture a much larger share of the massive $5 trillion-plus global health care industry, much of which only exists because of public funding.

That’s why rather than relying on hopes of expanding on the basis of private insurance, the private sector has been eager to get a larger slice from public sector budgets.

Why do you draw specific attention to the UK’s NHS in your book?

The costly experiments with competition, and slicing up publicly provided services to encourage private providers, have gone furthest in England, but that’s partly because compared with other countries there was a more integrated and publicly-provided service to dismantle.

But sadly England is not unique. Similar “reforms” from the same discredited menu are being adapted in different ways to different systems across much of Europe, and are even being driven in to the poorest developing countries where they are even less appropriate and more disastrous in their consequences.

For example, one growing problem is the international spread of “Public Private Partnerships,” to finance new hospitals, many of them drawing on the trail-blazing Private Finance Initiative (PFI) in the UK, which is proving itself to be a major liability, bankrupting hospitals in a cash-strapped NHS.

Despite many costly flaws, failures, and false starts, more PPPs (P3s in Canada) are now under way in OECD countries, but also in Latin America, Asia, South Africa and even Lesotho – in a costly $120m scheme I have written about for Global Health Check.

Where do you get the information for your critique?

I have made a point of using the most up to date material available from the World Bank (and its privatisation wing, the International Finance Corporation) and the IMF, as well as official figures from governments and the rich countries’ club, the OECD.  It’s important to use data that cannot be refuted – and in many case, let’s be honest, these are the only figures available.

Does the book raise any new issues?

I am not claiming to have invented many of the ideas in the book, but I hope I have helped to update, popularise and develop the argument for them.

And my concluding chapter “It doesn’t have to be this way” brings together a lot of different ideas, emphasising that the policies we are opposing are not inevitable products or even a rational response to the current situation, but choices that have been deliberately made by politicians working to a neoliberal agenda. They can be rejected and defeated by mass political action.

How do you hope the book will be used?

As I say in the preface, good ideas must be turned into political action to change the world. Bad ideas must be fought through political action too.

Sometimes good arguments can begin to prevail, such as the success that has been achieved by Oxfam and other campaigners challenging the logic of imposing user fees on health care.

So I hope my book will not sit gathering dust on library shelves, but be brandished — even used as a weapon — by those fighting for change.

A reinforced hardback edition may yet be needed to ensure we win!


Health Policy Reform: Global Health versus Private Profit, by John Lister is available from
(use voucher code HPR13 when purchasing to get discounted price of £20).









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