Opinion: Better health means better security — and more sustainable development

Dr. Olayinka Ilesanmi demonstrates handwashing as an important tool in infection prevention and control to community members at Masongbo village in the Bombali district of Sierra Leone. Photo by: Olayinka Ilesanmi / CDC Global / CC BY

It seems intuitive that sustainable development and security are interdependent with good health. However, not all development approaches include health as a component. But if a society is not focused on improving health indicators and creating a stable and accessible health care system, development efforts will not last.

Sustainable development rests on social development — literacy and education, effective governance, and good health. Without these, all the capital investment in the world will not catalyze sustained development.

Health is the “third leg” of the social development triangle, and it must remain a particular focus of international community efforts. Foundations and governments have poured billions into preventing diseases, seeking cures, and strengthening health systems. Through these efforts, incredible historic achievements have wiped out scourges that have ravaged humanity for millennia, including smallpox, rinderpest, polio, and Guinea worm disease (or dracunculiasis).

These terrible diseases not only cause untold suffering; they also reduce productivity and prosperity. Where there is little access to health care, people both contract diseases more easily and suffer more from those illnesses, keeping people away from their work. With less work comes less opportunity, less income, and entrenched poverty. Illness and disease can thus destabilize entire economic and social systems, undermining the security necessary for investment.

The world witnessed just how damaging such diseases can be with the 2014 West Africa Ebola outbreak. While the number of Ebola deaths was terrible, it was much lower than many predicted. On the other hand, the economic damage was much higher than anyone anticipated. The World Bank estimates that Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea — the three worst hit countries — lost a staggering 12 percent of their combined GDP. There could also be permanent losses, such as the cancellation of mining projects in Liberia. Because of border closures and quarantines, economic activity was harmed across Africa. To a much smaller degree, it also disrupted countries outside Africa that reacted to the outbreak with restrictive trade and travel measures.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the Ebola outbreak had as devastating an impact on economies — and thus, livelihoods — as it did on health and mortality. Just one example: Sierra Leone lost half its private sector workforce.

It does not have to be this way. The basic elements of decent health care are well known. While not easy to implement in many parts of the world, they are within reach, with assistance from the international community.

1. Basic hygiene and infection control

Sanitation, handwashing, and other basic hygiene tasks are all key to disease prevention. They, in turn, require access to potable water, effective human waste disposal, and treatment and simple education in proper hygiene techniques. This can all be achieved with relatively minimal investment and by relying on community-based programs to implement the interventions.

2. Traditional diets

The tragic irony of industrialized food production and distribution is that unimaginable abundance can coexist with lack of nutrition and chronic illness. In countries such as Mexico, Guatemala, and Kenya, ready access to relatively cheap processed foods is quickly replicating the obesity found in the U.S. and other developed nations. Cardiovascular illness, diabetes, and other chronic — and expensive — diseases quickly follow. But the communities experiencing these diet and health problems often have access to fresh produce and other traditional foods. NGOs can work with community groups to rediscover non-processed or minimally processed foods and reinforce the nutritional superiority of traditional diets as a basic preventive health measure.

3. Basic care and services

Hundreds of millions of people still lack access to the most basic health services, including dental and eye care. It has been demonstrated time and again that such care can be provided at relatively low cost, often with the assistance of volunteer community members. Basic yet comprehensive primary health care is the best way to prevent debilitating disease, infections, and illness. Models of such care in even the most remote areas of the world have been established and demonstrate their return on investment in terms of health outcomes, productivity, and higher incomes.

Health, development, and security tend to advance and improve together. This is one of the main lessons of success in post-World War II Europe and elsewhere. In a globalized world in which disease crosses borders on a regular basis and conflict threatens new and frightening levels of destruction and suffering, we all have an interest in the type of development that results in a healthier and more secure world.

Read more Devex coverage on global health.

About the author

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    Kate Schecter

    Kate Schecter is president and CEO of World Neighbors, Inc., an international development organization founded and based in Oklahoma City. She previously worked for the American International Health Alliance and the World Bank.