In recent decades there have been huge advances in healthcare provision—for both developed and developing nations. However, improvements in health have not been universal with many groups of people at risk of being left behind. In an uncertain, rapidly changing world, gaps in healthcare coverage pose a critical challenge to health system resilience. We spoke to Jens Wandel—Acting Executive Director of UNOPS, the UN’s infrastructure, procurement and project management experts—about how a fresh approach towards investment could be the key to tackling health inequities.
“The number one threat [to resilience] is lack of investment.”
— Jens Wandel, Acting Executive Director of UNOPS
In Mr Wandel’s opinion, the most significant barrier to strengthening health systems is a lack of stable investment. He adds that investors and the international community often underestimate the positive effects that consistent investment in health systems can bring about—such as greater equality, better economic opportunities, enhanced education outcomes, higher productivity and improved well-being. This leads to investments—of insufficient size and scope—being provided on a one-off, interventionist basis, weakening their effectiveness in the long term. In order to remedy this issue, Mr Wandel believes that stakeholders need to transform how they discuss healthcare investment: from a short-sighted focus on costs to a broader recognition of the benefits of sustained financing.
Sustainable Development Goal 17 emphasises that partnerships must play a central role in fostering sustainable development. This is equally true of investments in healthcare, where collaboration between the public and private sectors—as well as local communities—is vital to success. Elaborating on this point, Mr Wandel noted the success of a recent project, The Rural Renewable Energy Project, funded by the UK Government's Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), and implemented by UNOPS in rural Sierra Leone. In the wake of the Ebola outbreak in 2014, this project equipped rural healthcare centres with the capacity to generate renewable energy. The existing health centre solar power stations were then expanded to allow houses, schools and businesses access to electricity. To ensure financial sustainability, the project opened up to the private sector to run the power supply network in each village. This resulted in improved access to health, better education outcomes, more income generating opportunities at the local level and better vaccination ability during the pandemic. The project evidences the potential for partnerships—both with the private sector and local community—to facilitate sustained and stable investments in health in the long term.
Looking back on our experiences of the last few years, the importance of investing in health systems could hardly be clearer in Mr Wandel’s opinion. While the road towards resilience will be long, it is clear that a radical shift in approach–which recognises the benefits of consistent investment and leverages the potential of multi-sectoral partnerships—is vital to accelerating the pace of progress.
“If you take a partnership-focused approach, if you get the local private sector and community in there early on, and if you overlay health with other sustainable development factors, then you can start something systemic - that is just unbelievably interesting. That has a different quality to the kind of investments made twenty years ago, which were much more linear.”
— Jens Wandel