THE BLOG

The Cost of Providing the World's Poorest People With Their Own National Health Service

12/04/2015 21:35 BST | Updated 09/06/2015 10:59 BST

Today the Overseas Development Institute are releasing a report called 'Financing the Future' which shows that free basic universal healthcare would cost $74 billion a year to deliver in the 33 poorest countries - equivalent to just 4% of total bailout support provided to the banks by the UK Government. (1)

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The National Health Service (NHS) in this country is our greatest achievement and is one of the reasons I'm proud to live here. When it came into operation on the 4th July 1948 it was the first time anywhere in the world that completely free healthcare was made available to everyone on the basis of need, rather than the ability to pay.

We often forget that only 80 years ago healthcare was a luxury that not many people in this country could afford. Life in Britain in the 30s and 40s was tough and every year thousands of people died of infectious diseases like pneumonia, meningitis, tuberculosis, diphtheria and polio. The infant mortality rate, measured by the number of deaths of children before their first birthday, was around one in 20. (2)

Today no one in this country dies of tuberculosis, diphtheria or polio and the infant mortality rate is just 4 in a thousand. When measured against the healthcare available before the Second World War it is difficult to overstate the impact that the introduction of the NHS has had. Although medical science was then still at a basic stage, the NHS for the first time provided decent healthcare for all and at a stroke transformed the lives of millions.

Yet these improvements came at a cost. When the NHS was launched in 1948, it had a budget of £437 million, roughly £9 billion at today's value. For 2015/16, the budget will be around £115.4 billion. But no one in this country would say that is not a price worth paying. (3)

Globally the ODI report says that while there have been enormous strides in poverty reduction over the past two decades, progress will not be so easy in the next decade as the poor are increasingly concentrated in conflict-prone states, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa. This is where Emerge Poverty Free works supporting 15 programmes in 7 different countries, all in sub Saharan Africa.

One of those countries is Burundi. There one in five young people die before the age of 5, and the annual government spending on healthcare equates to less than 68 pence per person. In comparison in England we spend about £1,900 per person. This very poor country has insufficient resources to provide even the most basic healthcare so its population, especially those in the rural areas, miss out. That's why every year Emerge ships many thousands of pounds worth of high quality pharmaceuticals to Burundi and oversees their distribution through trusted health centres. In addition, emerge also partners with Burundian organisations who directly manage some of these health centres. This helps to ensure that in the areas where we work no one is turned away from treatment because they are too poor.(4)

The authors of the ODI report argue that aid should support a global 'minimum standard of living for all' and it is affordable. If all rich countries met the 0.7% international aid pledge that the UK government has just enshrined in law, there would be more than enough money to pay for basic universe healthcare for everyone in the 33 poorest countries. The UN's Financing for Development conference in Addis Ababa in July provides an ideal opportunity to debate this and prove we can afford to set up a National Health Service for the worlds poorest people (5).