Stabilizing and rebuilding state infrastructure in post-conflict settings has been increasingly recognized as critical to aiding the population and preventing renewed conflict. The United States has increasingly invested in rebuilding health systems, and in some cases assisting in the delivery of health services for the first time.
While global health concerns have recently received significant attention, as witnessed by President Obama’s Global Health Initiative, the importance of health system reconstruction to stabilization efforts remains unevenly recognized. On November 10, 2009, experts met at the Global Health Council’s Humanitarian Health Caucus to discuss investing in health services in the wake of war and the challenges of funding this investment.
“Deconstruction from violence extends beyond the time of war and often leads to severe damage of health infrastructure, decreased health workers, food shortages, and diseases…resulting in increased morbidity and mortality from causes that are not directly related to combat,” shared Leonard Rubenstein, a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. Rubenstein argued that while relieving suffering in post-conflict settings should be a sufficient reason to include health reconstruction in U.S. foreign policy, policymakers narrowly define rationales for engagement based on claims that investments increase peace and improve the image of the U.S. government.
Investing in Health Systems Builds State Legitimacy
The evidence for investing in health systems to deter future conflict is limited and this approach is dangerous, according to Rubenstein, because it distorts spending decisions and fails to consider comprehensive capacity development strategies. Additionally, the Department of Defense’s approach of “winning the hearts and minds” is too short-term and neither linked to “system-building activities that are effective and sustainable…nor consistent with advancing the health of the population,” he said.
Instead, Rubenstein recommended that the United States invest in health systems after conflict because it advances state legitimacy. Although additional evidence is necessary, Rubenstein maintains that the promotion of state legitimacy enhances the perception that the government is responding to their long-term needs and encourages local ownership and accountability. Developing health systems in post-conflict settings is complex and cannot be done quickly, he noted, and thus increased financial and human resource capacities will be essential.
Coordination and Transition Funding
“We need to recognize that the U.S. is not the only funder, as there are many stakeholders involved,” argued Stephen Commins, strategy manager for fragile states at the International Medical Corps. Commins argued that there is a “desperate need to coordinate donor funding … both within and across government systems, as well as an increased need for transparent donor tracking systems.”
As countries come out of conflict and start to gain government legitimacy, they need increased support to stabilize conflict and avoid collapse. Transition funding for health systems needs to support both short and long-term efforts, maintained Commins, but unfortunately the donors driving these timelines are often driven by self-interest, not the rights of the individual living in conflict.
Without a transparent donor tracking system, it is hard to demonstrate actual monetary disbursements versus commitments, so Commins called for a system that tracks allocations and spending in real time. These are not our countries, he argued, and responding to health systems in post-conflict settings should be tailored to the country’s needs, not the donor’s. He also called for increased research that describes, over time, the costs for rebuilding and transitioning from international NGO-driven systems to self-sustained governments.
Rebuilding Health Systems in Sudan
George Kijana, health coordinator in southern Sudan for the International Rescue Committee, discussed reasons for why Sudan’s health system remains poor five years after conflict. According to Kijana, the government in Southern Sudan has not been held accountable by its donors, leading to a breakdown in infrastructure and a lower quality of health workers.
Additionally, a majority of the available health data comes from non-state actors that are not easily accessible. Kijana shared that in order for Sudan to move forward, more research and data are needed to help target long-term capacity building projects, as well as short-term interventions that address infant and maternal mortality. While progress is slow, he pointed out encouraging signs of progress, as the Ministry of Health now recognizes their weaknesses and positively engages with its development partners such as the United Nations.
Photo:Romanian Patrol administers medical treatment to Afghan communities, courtesy of Flickr user lafrancevi.