How do we get back on track for SDG3?

Tubaji, 40-year-old mother of eight, holds her healthy newborn, Esther. Tubaji and Esther receive quality and consistent health care at the Tudekolele Health Center in Kasai Central, DRC. (Photo: Crystal Stafford for IMA World Health)

How do we get back on track for SDG3?

By Dr. Dennis Cherian, Associate Vice President for Global Health & Nutrition, Corus International

The COVID-19 pandemic plagued the world for over two years, disrupting lives, jobs, supply chains, health systems and more. According to the U.N., development gains in some low- and middle-income countries regressed tremendously, pushing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) back by a decade. While medical professionals raced to keep up with the novel virus and save lives across the globe, SDG3, or ensuring good health and well-being for all, had to take a temporary backseat. Now that critical advancements in COVID-19 prevention and treatment have been made, how do we get back on track to achieve SDG3?   

Focus on primary health care

A health system with a strong primary health care foundation yields better health and wellbeing. Health facilities and workers administering quality primary care are the first line of defense against disease outbreak. They have deeper connections to patients, understanding their lives and health care needs because they share similar contexts. These close relationships improve care and build trust in the health system, creating mutual accountability and ownership that perpetually reinforce the strengthening of the system and the health of the community.

Focusing time and resources on strengthening primary health care systems is not a flashy, innovative way to get back on track for SGD3, but it is the most practical. And though it may seem obvious to global health practitioners, it’s not something governments or the international donor community fund enough. When they do, that funding often doesn’t reach remote communities.

IMA and local partners walked four hours carrying 500 lbs of essential medical supplies to provide a remote IDP community in Ayod County, South Sudan with primary health care.

IMA and local partners walked four hours carrying 500 lbs of essential medical supplies to provide a remote IDP community in Ayod County, South Sudan with primary health care.

Maximizing private, faith-based health networks for primary care

Investing in strengthening the capacity of local faith-based health networks to provide quality primary health care services would be a cost-effective solution, especially to reach remote communities. Private, faith-based health partners provide key infrastructure, community outreach and health care service delivery where needed most in a health system, contributing significantly to equitable access to health care. Ministries of health around the world already trust and rely heavily on them to fill gaps in health services. For example, in many African countries facing extreme shortages of health workers, faith-based organizations (FBOs), like Christian Health Associations (CHAs), are estimated to provide between 30 – 70% of health care services. Recent mapping of a sample of 22 Christian health networks in 17 countries in sub-Saharan Africa shows 8,355 reported health assets. Of these assets, 95% are health service providers, including national-level hospitals, district-level hospitals, health centers, clinics and community programs.

Local heath FBOs, by nature of their religious affiliation, are often more trusted in rural communities. They are well-positioned to positively change entrenched health care seeking attitudes and behaviors which are greatly influenced by socio-cultural, religious and traditional practices. In addition to meeting the physical health needs of individuals, health FBOs also strive to treat the person holistically – looking after their mental, social and spiritual well-being, which is a fundamental approach of primary health care and integral to achieving universal health coverage and people-centered health care.

Strengthening local capacity

Corus organization IMA World Health has a long history working to strengthen the capacity of local faith-based health networks and partners, like SANRU Rural Health Program in the DRC. SANRU began in 1981 as a bilateral project managed by the Medical Office of the Protestant Church of Congo (ECC-DOM) with funding from USAID and the DRC’s Ministry of Health. Over more than 20 years, IMA World Health mentored SANRU staff and supported an integrated development approach to strengthen capacity for priority primary health care interventions. SANRU became known for providing health systems strengthening assistance to health zones across the DRC. Now, as a nationally registered NGO, SANRU has grown considerably and is a game changer in the national and regional public health context. 

IMA World Health has also collaborated with Africa Christian Health Associations Platform (ACHAP) since its founding in 2007, supporting their secretariat and increasing the technical capacities of their CHA member organizations. Over IMA’s decade of partnership with ACHAP, the regional coordinating body has grown to encompass 43 national-level faith-based networks providing health services in 14 countries across sub-Saharan Africa. IMA World Health now partners with ACHAP to improve maternal and child health globally through USAID’s MOMENTUM Integrated Health Resilience and to strengthen the local capacity of CHAs in Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe to advance COVID-19 vaccine demand and delivery through the Promoting COVID-19 Vaccine Equity through Faith-Based Networks in Africa (COV-FaB) project.   

Another one of IMA World Health’s long-standing faith-based partners is the Ecumenical Pharmaceutical Network (EPN), a Christian network organization with 131 members in 38 countries, predominantly in sub-Saharan Africa. As one of the founding members of EPN, IMA World Health is now accelerating a renewed partnership with EPN to address gaps identified in the supply chain of health commodities in the church health systems of Sierra Leone and Nigeria through the Smart Leveraged Church Supply Chain project. The project strengthens Christian Drug Supply Organizations (DSOs) to ensure that a consistent supply of affordable and quality-assured medical products reaches communities across sub-Saharan Africa.

Esther receives prescription medications from the pharmacist at the Meruwa Primary Health Care Center, located in Kajo Keji, South Sudan.

Esther receives prescription medications from the pharmacist at the Meruwa Primary Health Care Center, located in Kajo Keji, South Sudan. [Photo: Paul Jeffrey for IMA World Health]

Looking forward

To get back on track to progress towards SDG3, international donors and governments should co-create and invest more in health FBOs, like SANRUACHAP and EPN, to strengthen locally led health systems and leverage collective assets to further accelerate equitable health care service delivery.