Should we use Ebola to campaign for UHC?

A view of the Ebola Treatment Unit at Island Clinic in Monrovia, Liberia. The outbreak of the disease in West Africa highlighted the importance of robust and accessible health care systems. Photo by: Morgana Wingard / USAID / CC BY-NC

The ongoing Ebola crisis in West Africa has of course been one of the buzz topics during #GlobalDev Week in New York, where global health experts and policymakers agreed on the urgent need for stronger health systems in developing countries like those currently affected by the epidemic: Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

“If ever there was a case for using more of our government aid money to build efficient, smart and reliable comprehensive health systems in countries that don’t have them, this is it,” former U.S. President Bill Clinton said during a conversation in September with a select group of journalists, including Devex.

But addressing health care needs and moving forward with long-term development solutions is a real challenge that all stakeholders within the aid community are grappling with.

Dr. Tim Evans, senior director of the health, nutrition and population global practice at the World Bank, addressed the issue Sept. 22 and blasted the way development cooperation on global health is currently being conducted during an event hosted by the Rockefeller Foundation, the World Health Organization and the permanent missions to the United Nations of France, Japan and Thailand.

“Unfortunately our development assistance is much, much, much too short term,” Evans said. “We’re not interested in building those institutions that are critical to support complex functions like the financing of health systems.”

So what’s the way forward?

Top international aid groups like Save the Children are already thinking about ways to harness the tragedy of Ebola as a tool to call for universal health coverage in developing nations.

“In every crisis, you should also look for the opportunity,” said Brendan Cox, director of policy and advocacy at the organization, adding that there is a need to build a narrative around the epidemic and analyze the regional crisis it has sparked across West Africa as a case study for future advocacy work.

Cox noted his team is thinking a lot about their media response, as well as how they can collect an evidence base to influence policymakers.

“I certainly think there is an opportunity there. Whether we’ll be able to grip it is the open question,” he said.

However, using Ebola as a long-term campaign strategy for UHC might not be the best approach, according to Sihasak Phuangketkeow, permanent secretary of the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“Once the crisis ends … the interest also fades. That’s the problem,” he said during the panel discussion.

Phuangketkeow, whose country has implemented its own UHC system with some success, stressed that any sort of health care reform should be homegrown and requires strong commitment from policymakers.

Evans agreed that promoting UHC and strengthening public health systems in vulnerable nations is absolutely critical to prevent or at least mitigate crises such as Ebola, and went even further to assert that improving the international community’s ability to respond to epidemics can be seen as a moral imperative.

“What’s amazing to me on many fronts is just how globally uncoordinated and incapable we’ve been of mounting anything close to what constitutes a credible response,” he said. “If we look at the Ebola crisis and we see that in this city $236 billion can be raised in one day in initial public offering, [while] the global community is unable to raise $1 billion for Ebola, there’s something wrong.”

Do you agree the Ebola crisis is an opportunity to advocate for UHC in developing countries, and if so, what role would international development play in working toward this goal? Please let us know by sending an email to news@devex.com or leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Jeff tyson 400x400  1

    Jeff Tyson

    Jeff is a former global development reporter for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers multilateral affairs, U.S. aid, and international development trends. He has worked with human rights organizations in both Senegal and the U.S., and prior to joining Devex worked as a production assistant at National Public Radio. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations and French from the University of Rochester.