Strengthening health care systems a top priority for African finance ministers

Presenter at Finance Minister Forum
Linah Moholo, governor of the Reserve Bank of Botswana, spoke at the Forum

April 22, 2014 — Improving health outcomes in African nations requires not just boosting investment in health, but strengthening the capacity of national health care delivery systems, according to speakers at a recent gathering of African finance ministers at Harvard.

“It is not only about increasing the amount of money for health, but also increasing the health for the money,” said Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) Dean Julio Frenk at the event, held at the Harvard Faculty Club in Cambridge. The second annual Ministerial Forum for Finance Ministers, held April 6-9, 2014, was jointly organized by HSPH and the African Development Bank. A select group of serving finance ministers were invited to the Forum for their demonstrated interest in health sector strengthening in their nations.

Keynote speaker Helen Clark, former New Zealand prime minister and current head of the UN Development Programme, underscored the well-established correlation between health and economic development. “If moral and economic reasons are not sufficient to compel increased national investment in health, the convergence of infections and non-communicable diseases in most African countries will make it unavoidable,” she said.

Helen Clark, former New Zealand Prime Minister and current head of the UN Development Programme
Helen Clark, former New Zealand prime minister and current head of the UN Development Programme

Given that health and economic development go hand in hand—and that increasing public expectations of easy access to decent standard health care has become a top political priority in Africa—finance ministers at the forum examined approaches for achieving greater efficiency and “value” for money in the delivery of health care. They learned about the experience of countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, Rwanda, and Ethiopia, and discussed challenges such as procurement control, supply management, and health worker productivity. They also discussed strategies for sustaining health financing and approaches for achieving universal access to affordable, good-quality health care.

The Ministerial Forum for Finance Ministers is a key part of the Ministerial Leadership in Health (MLIH) Program. A joint initiative of HSPH and Harvard Kennedy School, one of the MLIH’s primary goals is encouraging collaboration between health and finance ministers in jointly leading national efforts to improve national health outcomes by strengthening service delivery. As a follow-up to the Forum, experts from Harvard will work with health and finance ministers to help develop and implement country-specific health sector strengthening plans.

— Michael Sinclair

Photos: Aubrey Calo