Is Charity Bad For Your Health?

Mosquito on leaf

Since 2000, there has been a massive flow of funding from the West into health care in developing African countries. Some of this has come from governmental sources in response to G8 initiatives such as the 2000 Millenium Fund and a significant amount has come from charitable organizations. One of the largest of these, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in 2010 alone gave $164bn for research and treatment of tuberculosis (TB) and another $100bn for malaria. From 1994 to date, the foundation gave $14,350bn of funding on global health issues and was one of the first bodies to fund access to retro-viral HIV drugs in Africa.

Against this background is it not rather churlish to suggest that such charitable giving has had the effect of harming the overall health of the population in the recipient countries? And, even less fair to suggest that the bulk of funding provided by western governments since 2000 has not just been wasteful but has distorted the health systems in many parts of Africa and Asia?

Well it may sound churlish but the reality is that how this largesse has been allocated and distributed has created major problems in the recipient states. First, it has followed the priorities set by the donor and these are often focussed on specific issues (HIV, TB, malaria) with specified outcomes in terms of the type of treatment to be delivered rather than building up the overall health infrastructure. In effect, large sums have been allocated to small specific portions of the overall public health leaving those states struggling with poor basic health infrastructures.

HIV has often been a specific focus for additional funding and this has brought very specific problems. The first is that even if the availability of HIV retro-viral drugs is improved, basic flaws elsewhere in the primary health infrastructure may undermine any gains. President Clinton in 2006 argued that what should happen is what he described as a “HIV-out” model. In effect the infrastructure constructed around a HIV program would underpin and build up the rest of the health system. In reality, in country after country this has failed to happen. In Botswana a program from 2002-06 aimed to provide retro-viral drugs to 55,000 out of 280,000 individuals with HIV.The program foundered due to a lack of locally trained medical and nursing staff (and this was worsened by the practice of OECD countries of recruiting locally trained staff to work in their countries). The net result was some improvement but at the cost of undermining other areas of public health provision. The few available doctors and nurses took up relatively well paid positions with the new programs rather than in the poorly funded and resourced state health sector. The outcome was not one where the HIV health programme became the basis for a wider health system, instead it effectively crowded out other areas of primary health.

More generally, this funding has not been aligned to the overall plans and needs of the recipient state, leading to a distortion of local priorities. In effect, such aid is spent as the donor (whether a private charity or a state) wishes and this often ignores the  needs of the recipient country. Very little of this funding is allocated to non-specific primary health provision as the donors wish to see direct results linked to their investments. Also particularly with US funding on HIV in the Bush years, the funding came with a very specific ideology around issues such as sexual health and this in turn biased how the programmes were developed.

The net effect has been that most of the HIV programmes have developed in isolation to any wider population health concerns. This has undermined the effectiveness of the HIV efforts (as other illnesses connected to poverty, lack of clean drinking water, lack of basic primary health provision) have offset any gains. Equally once the specific funding is withdrawn, the programmes tend to collapse as they are not part of an integrated (even if poorly resourced) health system.

On this basis, there is a strong case to suggest all the billions of dollars allocated since 2000, no matter how well intended, have been largely wasted. If this is the case, is there a better method to make use of the substantial investment in public health in the poorest countries?

The answer can be a cautious yes. But to make any difference, there has to be a major shift of attitudes among the donors. Two changes would be critical:

  • One is to fund generic public health provision so the recipient state can decide on local usage. This carries the risk of corruption but that already affects all too many of the current targetted programmes. If this was linked to a moratorium on recruiting expensively trained health professionals the result would be an under-funded but robust basic public health infrastructure . With that framework in place, there is then a greater chance of effective use being made of more targetted provision.
  • Second, all health programmes should be evaluated against two basic indices of public health. These are maternal survival rates and overall life expectancy.

The advantage of such broad measures is that they are effective measures of the impact not of just a particular programme but the overall gains in population health. Maternal survival rates are a good proxy for the overall level of health care (including the numbers of trained professionals) and the presence of sufficient sterile equipment and antibiotics. If these are present, maternal death rates fall, if they are absent they increase. Life expectancy in turn picks up the adequacy of all the factors that lead to wider population health. This can include reducing the incidence and impact of diseases such as Malaria, but alsothe provision of clean drinking water, access to sufficient nutrition, and immunisation programmes using sterile needles. In the OECD countries the recent growth in life expectancy has been led by a reduction in the rates of infant mortality (in effect more people are surviving to old age in the first place).

This is not to say there is no scope for specific programmes and special funding. However, if they were evaluated against these two fundamental measures then both donors and recipients can be assured that any funding is actually having a positive impact. In particular for state provided funding, this should be made available with less constraints so it can be spent on the overall public health infrastructure. Such changes, will help ensure that the current global investment in health outside the OECD is well spent. At the moment too much well intentioned funding is effectively being wasted.


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Roger Cook, MSc, PhD

Roger Cook, MSc, PhD, works in the UK higher education sector for almost 20 years at various universities in London, Lancaster, Edinburgh and Glasgow. He holds a BA in Economics from Exeter University, a MSc in Analysis of Decision Making Processes from Huddersfield University, and a PhD from Open University. He has been writing since 2007 with an emphasis on psychology and social policy work.
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