WHO Private Sector Engagement: PSI & other CSOs express grave concern

PSI and eight civil society allies have expressed grave concern on the World Health Organization’s Private Sector Engagement (PSE) Strategy Report, released in December 2020. The document, which was produced by the Universal Health Coverage Partnership, could be encouraging the commercialisation and privatisation of healthcare.

On the first day of the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s World Health Assembly, eight civil society organisations sent an open letter to Ms Zsuzsanna Jakab, Deputy Director-General of the WHO. The letter raises concerns about a recent report published by the WHO that could encourage the privatisation of health care amidst a Covid-19 pandemic that re-emphasised the challenges of commercialisation of healthcare systems, and without the necessary open debate that such an issue requires.

This is unacceptable at any time. It becomes even more worrisome that it is issued during the Covid-19 pandemic, which has shown that well-financed public healthcare is the only bulwark for realising the right to health.

The report paints a picture of the private sector’s positive role without pointing out controversies.

Its framing also goes against the spirit and letters of the WHO governing bodies resolutions on private sector engagement. The 63rd World Health Assembly (WHA) focus in 2010 was to strengthen the institutional capacity of governments to regulate private providers to strengthen health systems delivery of essential healthcare services. That point was reiterated by the 65th WHA in 2012.

This is a far cry from the Strategy Report’s advocacy for “governance in mixed health systems”. Such an approach essentially equates private provision with public healthcare delivery. Further, it erodes the primary place of governments as sovereign bodies who as duty-bearers, are responsible for delivery of health as an essential public good and human right.

From one step backwards to another, the Report paints a picture of the private sector’s positive role in cases it cites such as Lombardy in Italy, without pointing out controversies that have been raised with those same cases. The impact of privatisation of health in the Lombardy region for example contributed significantly to weakening crisis preparedness when there was a Covid-19 surge in Italy last year, making Lombardy the epicentre in Italy, and globally at that point in time.

The right to health can be guaranteed only as universal public health care. And any WHO strategy must be clearly aligned with realisation of the fundamental right to health. This is the point of departure for PSI and other CSOs case against the PSE Strategy Report.

The signing organisations call on the WHO to:

  • Set up a truly open and consultative process to define the organisation’s position on the issue of private sector engagement;

  • Take all measures to ensure a democratic debate and approval of any position on private sector before moving to any implementation;

  • This strategy should be clearly aligned with the right to health, international human rights law and WHO’s commitment to promote quality public healthcare, and not encourage commercialisation of healthcare in any direct or indirect way;

  • Clarify the status of the December 2020 Strategy Report in WHO’s communication as an expert opinion, as it is stated in its disclaimer, and not as a WHO strategy.

You can read our full statement below: