ICPD + 15: Debating Health Care When It’s No Longer “Business as usual”

Carolina Austria

ICPD+15 is an opportunity to reflect on public health systems as core social institutions in the face of market failures and inadequacies, including corporate ineptitude in meeting the needs of ordinary people.

The raging debate on health care in the United States appears to be all
about the cost of services, the burden of shouldering the expense and deciding
whether or not the state has a role in addressing the inevitable conflict over
the balance of benefits and burdens. But the drama unfolding in town halls
across the United States – with the rest of the global village watching — demonstrates
that this time, the stakes go way beyond the usual bureaucratic or even
technocratic challenges in health service delivery.

Conceiving health as a right makes a profound difference not only in how
people claim individual entitlements to health and standards of care, but also
highlights the role of public institutions both in service provision and as
purveyors of common interests. When the right to health belongs to everyone
regardless of race, class, sex and religion, confronting the issue of social
inequality is inevitable. Fifteen years ago, the International
Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) brought a special focus on sexual
and reproductive health
which unlike other fields of health is the most implicated
by socio-economic and cultural factors. Religious traditions are invoked
against women’s empowerment and decision making over their reproductive well
being. The same conservatism bars the education of young people on matters vital
to their sexual and reproductive health. And while there are signs of progress
as in the recent cases of Mexico (when the city passed an ordinance
decriminalizing early term termination of pregnancy) and India (where the
courts struck down the penal law against sodomy), archaic laws all over the
world continue to perpetuate discrimination primarily against women and
homosexuals. Indeed gender is a
significant marker of social and economic vulnerability
and its impact is visible
from inequalities of access to health care to the gender differences that
dictate people’s social positions as users and producers of health care.

Fifteen years later, many of the original opponents of the ICPD’s
framework of health as human rights can be expected to voice the same
antagonism against the ICPD, specifically its challenges to gender-based
inequality, traditional gender roles coupled with its positive frame on
sexuality. But while the opposition seems the same, the context has changed quite
radically. For one, while the US debacle over its health systems is easily dismissed
as a localized phenomenon, it’s also important to draw lessons from the
experience given that decades ago (long before the ICPD), many developing
nations embraced health sector “reforms” founded on the same faith in market
principles to cure the various ills of their health systems and they show no signs
of rethinking such strategies.

In fact even before the ICPD, pundits were already sounding alarm bells
about the free market principles behind many health sector reform initiatives. In
1994, William
called “marketization as the illusory magic pill” that developing
nations were depending on to alleviate their underfunded and inefficient public
sector dominated health systems. Yet as several countries’ experiences later
proved, the push
towards marketization did not occur outside a geo-political vacuum
From Mexico to Nigeria, the Caribbean and the Philippines, HSR traces its origins
from Structural Adjustment Programs which prescribed cut-backs on government
spending including social services.
Budget cuts affected marginalized
sectors but poor women bore the brunt as providers of health care. Majority of
community-based health workers in the global south are women volunteers or
minimally paid workers. In the meantime, key health professions such as nursing
and care giving grew even more focused on job markets abroad. A case in point
is the Philippines where remittances from overseas workers have been the
single-most determining factor of continuing economic survival. Thus it may be
argued (and it has been argued) that catering to the first world market in
health serves the economy. As in the Philippines, qualified
health professionals from Ghana, Malawi, Zambia and South Africa often seek
employment abroad
. In 2002 the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that
the trend of migration of nurses from third world countries would seriously
jeopardize the ability of many health systems to function. Indeed shortages
of skilled professionals such as nurses with midwifery skills, are now linked
to gaps in the provision of maternal, newborn and child health

Appreciate our work?

Rewire is a non-profit independent media publication. Your tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.


ICPD+15 is an opportunity to reflect on public
health systems as core social institutions
in the face of market failures
and inadequacies, including corporate ineptitude in safeguarding the finances
ordinary people depend upon for their health and well being. As Lynn Freedman points
out, health systems are part of the very fabric of social and civic life –
because they function at the interface between people and the structures of
power that shape their broader society. Health as a right is premised on social

Load More

We must defend reproductive rights at every level. That includes staying informed. Sign up for our email list now.

Thank you for reading Rewire!