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Health Partnership Scheme cannot waste money sending British staff for placements

The Department for International Development is not the only part of the UK government with a role in global health  The Department of Health has an international health department and leads a strategy called Health is Global. Their focus is on “global health” – health issues that cross borders – rather than solely health as part of international development. 

The one-day conference was addressed by two ministers: Anne Milton from Health and Stephen O’Brien from International Development. One output they both mentioned is the Health Partnership Scheme. This is a pot of funding from DFID to fund UK health institutions (including the NHS) to support developing countries. Under this Scheme, there are clearly many worthwhile possibilities. Lots of UK training institutions, especially the Royal Colleges, are interested in extending their links with medical training in developing countries.

However, one approach discussed worries me. Stephen O’Brien said he imagines a future where NHS job interviews routinely ask what developing country placement the applicant has carried out. I don’t share this part of the vision. Sending large numbers of UK clinical staff to Africa and Asia to actually provide services could be the opposite of sustainable development. For a start, these staff are unliely to know the language and cultures in which they are working. Giving health advice and instructions is very ineffective if the context in which people live is not taken into account. Most of the people with highest health needs do not speak English.

Maximising the effectiveness of UK aid money is hardly served by flying staff around the world. Nor, since it is a topic of another session at this meeting, is the goal of slowing climate change. The numbers involved would always be too low to make a difference to the huge need.

Building capacity in poor countries means investment in health workers from those countries. UK institutions have a great role to play in advising and supporting developing country ministries, and in building capacity through training. Our experience in funding a successful health system that is free at the point of use suggests we should send health economists, tax experts and NHS finance managers to train and advise. New technology could link lectures, seminars and training sessions in the UK with parallel sessions in training colleges in poor countries. Our policies and systems for health worker employment and training could inform other  countries. Our health trade unions and professional bodies can support other countries’ bodies to advocate for better working conditions.

There are thousands of exciting opportunities to build long-term sustainable capacity in poor countries through the Health Partnership Scheme. Using it to send British health workers to deliver services would be a mistake and a wasted opportunity.

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