A doctor checks a patient’s blood pressure. Photo by: MSD for Mothers

Every day, 810 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth; 15,000 children under 5 die each day as well, mostly from preventable causes, according to the World Health Organization. The Sustainable Development Goals, particularly SDG 3 on health and well-being, is a universal call to action to reduce child and maternal mortality, as well as ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health care services. While progress has been made, there is still much work to be done.  

Devex and MSD for Mothers are engaged in a bold and innovative research collaboration to examine the promise of private sector solutions to improve reproductive, maternal, newborn, child, and adolescent health, or RMNCAH. Our shared goal is to shed light on opportunities for the global health community to collaborate with the private sector — not only as a source of funding, but also as a source of innovation, expertise, and business-minded best practices and models — for better RMNCAH outcomes.

While most donor agencies are officially committed to mobilizing the private sector to achieve sustainable and inclusive growth and development worldwide, they are not employing a consistent definition of “private sector engagement.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us of the need for increased partnerships and the importance of leaning into the expertise and capacity within each constituency from academia to community responses, and most critically the private sector. It has also highlighted gaps within our current health systems, but created an opportunity to explore new ways of working, from training and communication to supply-chain management and care provision.

Building on our past reporting and in-depth coverage of care in India and Kenya — together with our expertise on tracking funding opportunities — we will explore to what extent donor agencies are supporting and investing in RMNCAH activities while leveraging private sector partnerships. That includes leveraging financing, technical solutions, and more broadly, private sector approaches, while examining how the private sector engages and the impact it is able to have.  

Lack of standardized private sector funding data hinders progress

There is currently a $33 billion annual financing gap for RMNCAH services. It is clear that public sector finance alone is not going to bridge this gap. This will impact the development sector’s ability to meet the related SDG targets. With this in mind, there is an urgent need for a concerted effort to leverage the capacity of the private sector envisaged in SDG 17 on partnerships.

However, there is also a lack of standardized data on private sector funding on how the sector is being leveraged for RMNCAH goals thus far, which would allow organizations to better understand the capacity and potential within the private sector. MSD for Mothers and Devex will endeavor to track how donors are leveraging the private sector to achieve RMNCAH goals.

Attempts have been made to address the need to gather and standardize funding data involving the private sector, including on the RMNCAH space.

Well-known examples include International Aid Transparency’s initiative for all development activity and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Muskoka methodology for RMNCAH funding. However, open data initiatives have failed to provide information on who is involved in leveraging and scaling private sector funding and expertise in all areas, including RMNCAH.  

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.

In 2018, Devex and MSD for Mothers conducted the first overview of the opportunities and challenges with donor-driven private sector engagement in RMNCAH. The underlying conclusion was that reliable numbers on RMNCAH investments leveraging the private sector expertise and contributions do not exist.

While most donor agencies are officially committed to mobilizing the private sector to achieve sustainable and inclusive growth and development worldwide, they are not employing a consistent definition of “private sector engagement,” nor agreeing on the standard to measure their commitments to engage the private sector.

Earlier this year, OECD, which tracks development data and activities, included data on aid spending through “private sector instruments.” OECD considers all financial instruments that are used to engage the private sector in development cooperation to be private sector instruments.

It found that $2.9 billion official development assistance — about 2.7% of total bilateral assistance — was spent using private sector instruments. However, only 18 out of 30 donors reported on their aid spending on private sector instruments.

With an estimated $33 billion funding gap affecting RMNCAH, data plays a fundamental role in guiding strategic decisions that leverage the private sector’s investments.

Experts agree that donors do not formally or systematically track or report commitments to the private sector, which makes assessing actual disbursements and activities difficult. Even when financial data does exist, it is disconnected from measurements of performance and impact.

Without knowing what the successes and pitfalls are of these investments, donors can’t learn and continue to invest in what works, nor develop cost-effective and sustainable models to adopt. 

How to create real change?

Bringing the development community together to continue to advance the understanding of the private sector’s potential in reducing the funding gap and fostering data-driven best practices across donors is crucial to addressing the funding gap. Similarly, encouraging the expansion of innovative methods and instruments leveraging private sector expertise is key in directing more funding to RMNCAH.

To do this, we will be focusing our efforts on exploring how the top RMNCAH funders are investing in:

Private sector instruments and public-private partnership solutions. By leveraging private sector donors’ capital and fostering alliances to share resources and expertise, these approaches are considered to hold a tremendous potential for RMNACH. We will explore what donor agencies are specifically doing to increase this type of opportunity, how they are doing it, and its impact.  

Private providers. Having visibility into how funders and investors support local actors — private health service providers, local supply chains, etc. — is paramount in understanding how donors can better invest in the private sector to provide RMNCAH solutions locally.

We will be combining different methodologies and approaches to foster data transparency and best practices around data reporting. We will start by analyzing existing data from key donors in the pursuit of indicative data on RMNCAH where the private sector plays a relevant role. An analysis of the U.S. Agency International Development’s engagement with local partners working on RMNCAH will be our first study.

We will also analyze and monitor what development organizations and funding agencies are doing together with the private sector in RMNCAH funding through a variety of sources including: press releases, annual reports, news articles, and other text-based content.

We will also interview and engage community experts through live and virtual events with the aim to bridge the knowledge gap and accelerate the adoption of private sector solutions to achieve our shared RMNCAH goals.

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.

Join the conversation on funding the future of RMNCAH.

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