Without health, there is no wealth. Unless communities can survive and thrive, sustainable development remains a pipe dream.
Health is just one goal amongst the proposed 17 Sustainable Development Goals that, come September, are due to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that have guided global development policy since 2000.
But health is the golden thread that underpins all other aims – such as education and economic growth. If people are well, they are better able to go to school, work and prosper. As both an enabler of sustainable development and an end in itself, health deserves sufficient attention and investment.
It was heartening to see that healthcare got a fair hearing last week in Addis Ababa at the Financing for Development conference – a summit dedicated to considering how the global community can resource and realise the ambitious new development agenda.
It was encouraging to see the discussion moving away from an aid agenda to a commitment from finance ministers to support domestic economic growth and job creation. The adoption of a ‘social compact’ will encourage countries to set national spending targets in public services, including health and education.
Supporting access to healthcare does not have to be limited to government – as Addis illustrated. During the conference, a new multi-sector Global Financing Facility was announced that will unlock billions of dollars in international, private and public funding to support women and children’s health.
All sectors, including business, can benefit from investing in healthcare. A healthy population leads to a stronger economy that allows business to grow, deliver and contribute to the societies in which it operates. This kind of virtuous circle means it makes sense for the private as well as the public sector to take a stake in improving health outcomes.
The numbers back up why this is both worthwhile and urgent. Take malaria: while the MDGs galvanised control efforts and deaths from the disease have been almost halved, those gains can easily be lost. Despite progress, malaria still claims more than 500,000 lives each year – mostly young children in Africa.
Not only is this devastating for families, but malaria drains economies. As much as 40 percent of health spending in Africa goes towards fighting the disease. Studies suggest a 10 percent reduction in malaria could add 0.3 percentage points to the GDP of countries with a high incidence of the disease. On 24 July, European regulators approved the world’s first malaria vaccine developed by GSK with backing from Bill Gates.
Although investing in healthcare is arguably one of the ‘best buys’ in global development, financing for health systems falls short. The consequences are stark. Around 400 million people around the world are still without access to essential health services such as childhood vaccines, according to a recent report by the WHO and the World Bank.
Underinvestment in healthcare leaves countries dangerously vulnerable to crises, as the Ebola outbreak in West Africa illustrated. As well as claiming thousands of lives, it shut down communities and economies. It also reversed development progress made in post-conflict countries including Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Countries like Rwanda are already demonstrating that it is possible to deliver accessible, affordable healthcare to citizens. In light of the Addis compact, other countries will hopefully consider how they can follow Rwanda’s lead.
Partnering Across Sectors
While governments should lead, achieving this does need partnerships. Increasing access to healthcare is a challenge that benefits from different types of organisations with different skills and expertise working together. This agenda must include the private sector.
This is one reason why GlaxoSmithKline, one of the world’s largest healthcare companies, and non-profit Save the Children struck a five-year partnership. They aim to pool their expertise to help save the lives of one million children through projects such as developing child-friendly medicines.
Such agenda demands lateral thinking, try different models and work with others. One model GSK is pioneering in the world’s poorest countries has led to switch focus to increasing the volume of medicines sold. GSK have capped prices of their patented products in the least developed countries at 25 percent of those in the developed world.
In these countries, they also reinvest 20 percent of the profits back into training health workers in partnership with three NGOs: Amref Health Africa, CARE International and Save the Children. These kinds of investments deliver a great return: they help business to grow as well as contributing to the health ecosystem.
Moreover, they can act as a catalyst for others to invest in healthcare. Already, the mobile and banking sectors are contributing to healthcare following the lead of some extractive companies. If access to healthcare and sustainable development is to be a reality, more industries will need to come on board.
The commitments at Addis were laudable, but to turn words into action on health, business will need to be at the table as well as government.
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