Free and Public

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).









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: