February 5, 2009

World Bank Triples Health Lending

Senior officials with the World Bank and World Health Organization warned donors and developing countries on Thursday that reductions in health spending amid a global financial crisis could cost lives.

The World Bank said it expects to triple its lending for health initiatives to $3 billion this year to alleviate the impact of the worldwide economic slowdown in developing countries.

"The health sector is particularly badly affected," said Julian Schweitzer, World Bank director of health, nutrition and population, speaking with reporters in Geneva, Switzerland.

Some developing countries' health budgets are lessening, while currency devaluations in some nations are driving up the costs of imported drugs, he added. Making matters worse, remittances from workers living abroad are typically lower during times of recession.

"World Bank lending for health will be up from just less than $1 billion to $3 billion this year," said Schweitzer.

Joy Phumaphi, the World Bank's vice president for human development and a former health minister of Botswana, called on donor nations to respect their health-related foreign aid commitments during the slowdown.

"This financial crisis could unravel many of the hard-fought gains in health over previous decades unless we all hold the line on the flow of development aid and health spending," she told Reuters.

For every 1 percent decline in gross domestic product (GDP), 20 million people are pushed into poverty, she estimated.

"What this means for households is that they will have even less money available for health," Phumaphi said.

Once services are reduced, it can take up to a decade for health services to be restored to pre-crisis levels, she said.

The World Bank officials made their remarks at a meeting of the International Health Partnership (IHP).  The coalition was launched in September 2007 with the intent of expanding health services in 24 partner countries, which include Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda and others.

The IHP seeks to increase the volume of long-term stable financing for results-oriented health initiatives.   The World Bank, the World Health Organization and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are all IHP supporters.

Ivan Lewis, the UK's international development minister, said the British government would dedicate $657 million over the next three years to sustain plans in eight IHP nations.

"Now is not the time to retreat," he told Reuters.


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