Even before the devastating Ebola epidemic in West Africa, development agencies were highlighting that health indicators in this region were lagging the rest of the continent. In a 2013 report UNICEF noted:
“West and Central Africa in particular requires a special focus for child survival, as it is lagging behind all other regions, including Eastern and Southern Africa, and has seen virtually no reduction in its annual number of child deaths since 1990.”
But as Ebola has overwhelmed some countries and threatened many others, questions are being asked about the role of international agencies in undermining health systems in West Africa. Specifically, fingers have been pointed at the 1980s structural adjustment policies of the World Bank and IMF for forcing poor African countries to cut public spending on health. These policies also shifted the financing burden of health services onto poor populations by charging them user fees. Interestingly at the time one of the leading critics of this policy was none other than the current President of the World Bank.
Other health policies promoted at the same time were also damaging to poor people’s access to health care. The Bamako Initiative (BI) launched in 1987, was prompted by UNICEF and WHO as community management of “revolving drug funds”. However, BI institutionalized user fees for essential medicines in some of the poorest countries in the world. Not surprisingly, with most households unable to pay these fees, utilization of health services in the countries concerned slumped, with the poor most likely not to seek care. In West Africa where the BI became established, typical utilization of curative services at the start of the millennium was around one visit per person every three years!
Thankfully a huge volume of research evidence over the last 20 years has conclusively proved the folly of this approach. User fees have been shown to be ineffective in raising health revenues, inefficient in incurring high administration costs and inequitable in excluding the poor. They have also resulted in outrageous human rights abuses where poor people (often women and babies) have been detained in hospitals because they can’t pay their bills. Sadly this practice continues to this day.
As a result of these findings many prominent aid agencies have radically changed their health financing policies, including the World Bank whose President has referred to user fees as “unnecessary and unjust”. Even one of the architects of the World Bank’s previous pro-user fees policy has publicly stated his change of position on user fees although he did not admit that it was a mistake then.
However, not all agencies have been so clear in making a break with the past. As recently as 2008 in its State of the World’s Children Report, UNICEF was still championing the Bamako Initiative and openly criticizing NGOs that were advocating the removal of user fees Indeed one of the countries singled out for praise in implementing the BI was Guinea, from where the current Ebola epidemic has spread
It is true that the international agencies involved in promoting the BI have gradually shifted their positions on health financing and are now rallying behind the goal of universal health coverage. However, the agencies that promoted the BI need to acknowledge their past mistakes rather than assuming that the Bamako Initiative never happened.
This is problematic because whereas other development agencies are aware of the changing consensus on health financing, this may not be the case in many countries. Some governments are still laboring under the illusion that the BI is working and thus user fees policies are still implemented. Thankfully, some countries in the region are now replacing user fees with public financing, for at least some of the population, most notably in Liberia, Ghana, Senegal, Niger and Sierra Leone. The latter’s free health services initiative for pregnant women and children under 5 has been a particularly good example of the impact of removing user fees.
However in West and Central Africa, out-of-pocket payments including user fees remain by far the biggest health financing mechanism. With the Ebola virus not beaten yet in the region, the lack of effective healthcare coverage doesn’t only threaten the health of the population in the region but also poses a threat to global health too.
Therefore, as the international community begins to support countries in West Africa to develop more resilient health systems, there is one immediate action they should take as a top priority. This action would cost practically nothing but its impact could be profound in helping put countries on a path towards equitable universal health coverage. After a twenty-eight year failed experiment, it’s time that agencies including UNICEF and WHO formally and publicly end the Bamako Initiative.
 UNICEF 2013 Committing to Child Survival, a Promise Renewed, Progress Report 2013 Available at: http://www.unicef.org/publications/files/APR_Progress_Report_2013_9_Sept_2013.pdf
 IDS Practice Paper in Brief 2015 Ebola and Lessons for Development Available at: http://opendocs.ids.ac.uk/opendocs/bitstream/handle/123456789/5849/ID557%20Online.pdf
 Kim JY et al editors 2000 Dying for Growth Global Inequality and the Health of the Poor. Common Courage Pres
 UNICEF 2009 Maternal and Child Health the Social Protection Dividend: West and Central Africa
 Yates R 2009 Universal Health Care and the Removal of User Fees The Lancet 373: 2078–81 Available at http://www.thelancet.com/pdfs/journals/lancet/PIIS0140-6736(09)60258-0.pdf
 Kippenberg J Burundi A High Price to Pay Detention of Poor Patients in Hospitals 2006 Human Rights Watch Volume 18 No 8(A) New York, USA
 See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RNfzXh4I-Pw
 Kim JK Poverty Health and the Human Future [Speech] World Health Assembly, Geneva, Switzerland 21 May 2013 Available from: http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/speech/2013/05/21/world-bank-group-president-jim-yong-kim-speech-at-world-health-assembly
 Boseley S (2012) From user fees to universal healthcare – a 30-year journey. The Guardian
 UNICEF 2008 State of the World’s Children: Child Survival available at: http://www.unicef.org/sowc08/docs/sowc08.pdf