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Oxfam: Aid wasted on private health care in poor countries

London — International aid agency Oxfam urged the World Bank and rich nations Thursday to stop "wasting" donations and possibly risking lives by backing unproven private health care programs in poor countries.

A new Oxfam report on health care reveals many private schemes perform poorly. In China, for example, one third of drugs dispensed by private vendors are counterfeit. Yet these private programs continue to be backed by international donors.

"Donors’ romantic views of private sector health providers are completely divorced from the facts," said report author Anna Marriott. "In Malawi, 70 percent of private providers are shops. For the most part, private health care in poor countries is made up of unqualified shopkeepers selling out-of-date medicines. Is that what you would want for your sick baby?"

Oxfam says the World Bank is pushing privatized health care despite a lack of evidence that it is the best option. The American and British development bodies (USAID and DFID) and the Asian Development Bank are following suit, they say.

At the same time, aid for public primary health care services in poor countries has almost halved in the last decade, the report says — so it is no surprise if they are now weak and badly run.

"After years of donor under-investment in government health care, to claim that government failure is inevitable is like tying a football player’s laces together and blaming him for losing the match," Marriott said.

She cites Sri Lanka as one case where public health care has led to rapidly improving life chances. Women there can now expect to live almost as long as those in Germany, despite an income ten times smaller, she said.

While Lebanon spends twice as much as Sri Lanka on health care, its infant and maternal mortality rates are 2.5 and three times higher respectively.