Bianca Drebber, portfolio manager for private sector engagement at The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Photo by: The Global Fund

There are significant gaps in timely, recurring, complete, correct, and real-time health data that is needed to inform funding decisions, resourcing needs, policies, and decisions, said Bianca Drebber, portfolio manager for private sector engagement at The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

The Global Fund investments are a key part of building better health systems and data systems, but domestic financing is most important, she said. “When it comes to investing in health systems, data is definitely a concern because we need the right level of data to know where and how to invest for impact, but also then to track and course correct when needed,” she said.

The Global Fund invests over $4 billion annually in over 100 countries and is a major international funder of reproductive, maternal, newborn, child, and adolescent health interventions.

“There’s real potential there to change the way that we use data,” Drebber said, adding that there are huge capabilities in the private sector when it comes to data use.

For example, The Global Fund partnered with IBM, and the India HIV/AIDS Alliance to improve the quality of care for people living with HIV and TB using a tablet-based application that collated data. The eMpower platform was piloted in several districts in India and — by tracking people living with HIV, monitoring their adherence to treatment, and uploading the data so it was accessible to health workers — it has reached 2 million people. Other The Global Fund partners in the health data space include The Rockefeller Foundation, Mastercard, Microsoft, Google, Orange, and Zenysis.

“We know that there will be more pandemics and more public health threats coming and that data systems will perform the backbone to addressing those,” Drebber said.

Speaking to Devex, she explained the other roles the private sector can play in the RMNCAH space and how the Global Fund is leveraging private sector expertise in data and other areas.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Private sector engagement 

As defined by OECD, this is an activity that aims to engage the private sector for development results, which involve the active participation of the private sector. The definition is deliberately broad in order to capture all modalities for engaging the private sector in development cooperation from informal collaborations to more formalized partnerships.

Read more about the definition and how Maternity Matters: Funding the Future is exploring the topic.

How does the Global Fund work with the private sector?

The Global Fund works through, or with, the local private sector through the problems we support. In the context of national responses, everything that we do, wherever the private sector comes into play — either at global partnership level or at local level — is driven by the country and country ownership.

There are, in principle, four key ways that the local private sector can engage: one is through hands-on implementation as principal recipients or self-recipients of Global Fund grants... Secondly, there is the formal, local private sector so clinics, overall private health providers, certified doctors, health centers, and so on… Thirdly, there’s the noncommercial private sector — so faith-based organizations, community-based organizations, and NGOs who provide critical services. And finally, the informal local private sector [such as] pharmacies, traditional healers, and basically everything beyond formal health systems delivery.

The Global Fund strategically mobilizes resources to bridge the gap between government resourcing and the resources needed to fulfill health system needs. How does the private sector help bridge that gap?

There are two key ways the private sector can come in to bridge the gaps: through funding, and through skills, solutions, and capabilities. Providing financial resources is the more straightforward one, and a very key one obviously to our work, because the private sector not only provides funding for critical gaps, but goes beyond what Global Fund grants are doing. The private sector has the unique positioning [to be able to] earmark or direct funding into specific issues, countries, or gaps, in a way that public sector donors can’t. Those contributions really help extend the Global Fund reach.

Obviously, there are funding partners like the (RED) partnership, for example, that provide a platform for private sector funding. More broadly, we also work with partners like the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation to support and to specifically invest with catalytic funding — or catalytic resources as we call them — that can really go beyond what our Global Fund brands are doing and address key issues.

For example in the case of CIFF, it’s HIV self-testing, so really changing the way that HIV services are being delivered. In the case of the Rockefeller Foundation, through the Data Science Catalytic Fund, it’s investing into digital health with a specific lens on community health data.

When we speak about catalytic support, it really goes beyond financial resources because we need to allow for innovation and space to develop solutions for the future. This means new funding, but also leveraging and enhancing the expertise and solutions that already exist in the private sector. The ideal scenario would actually even combine both.

How do you perceive the level of transparency around private sector investments and how can it help improve health system strengthening and outcomes?

Transparency is one of four key principles the Global Fund is grounded in. That means both in our investments and also in the impact… All the data is publicly accessible. We’re also extremely transparent with everyone involved in the Global Fund ecosystem from donors to implementers to communities, because, for us, it’s absolutely clear that transparency is needed if we want to drive impact and we want to succeed.

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Beyond a control function of just tracking results or investments, the point that you make on sharing best practices findings and learning not only within the Global Fund or in between Global Fund investments, but between all partners involved in global health is and will be critical.

On one hand, the Global Fund invests about $1 billion a year to strengthen the underlying health systems. That includes human resources for health, funding community health workers, data systems and management of data, lab and diagnostics, and the supply chain is a part of that as well. In that sense, being transparent about those investments, making sure the impact of those investments is the highest, is absolutely key and core to how we work. It means our partners in countries, private sector partners, especially civil society partners and communities in the countries, their feedback, involvement, engagement, and also criticism is absolutely critical to keep all those investments on track.

How do you currently perceive access to this data within the global health field and how can it be improved?

We see the urgency [for real-time health data] becoming more and more acute. Especially now [with] COVID-19, we see it as a concern and it’s something that will make the public health threats that we’re already dealing with even more complex. It adds an additional level of complexity also for reporting data systems in countries, which are already constrained. That means that we need more and better data systems to produce the real-time and reliable data that can then form the basis of decision-making across all of those levels.

Through the Global Fund mechanisms and our stand up reporting, we ensure to have the right checks and balances in place. Be it the local fund agents when it comes to financials and reporting in countries, further checks through audits through the office of the inspector general through technical review panels, the whole investment continuum is a core part of the Global Fund model and an important way in verifying our investments and their impact. That transfers into the regular reporting and the annual reporting that is all accessible publicly.

[With] the skills and technologies the private sector can bring in, there’s real potential to change the way that we use data, the way that data is being raised, and how that goes beyond what we do.

Devex and MSD for Mothers co-hosted a virtual roundtable earlier this year to discuss the role of local private sector solutions to deliver care in low- and middle-income countries both during COVID-19 and in a post-pandemic landscape. Watch the roundtable.

The Funding the Future series is supported by funding from MSD, through its MSD for Mothers program and is the sole responsibility of the authors. MSD for Mothers is an initiative of Merck & Co., Inc., Kenilworth, NJ, U.S.A.

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