Health in the service of state-building in fragile and conflict affected contexts: an additional challenge in the medical-humanitarian environment

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Conflict and Health 2015, 9:13 doi:10.1186/s13031-015-0039-4
Mit Philips* and Katharine Derderian

Abstract (provisional)

Background Global health policy and development aid trends also affect humanitarian health work. Reconstruction, rehabilitation and development initiatives start increasingly earlier after crisis, unleashing tensions between development and humanitarian paradigms. Recently, development aid shows specific interest in contexts affected by conflict and fragility, with increasing expectations for health interventions to demonstrate transformative potential, including towards more resilient health systems as a contribution to state-building agendas. Discussion Current drives towards state-building opportunities in health interventions is mainly based on political aspirations, with little conclusive evidence on linking state-building efforts to conflict prevention, neither on transformative effects of health systems support. Moreover, negative consequences are possible in such volatile environments. We explore how to anticipate, discuss and monitor potential negative effects of current state-building approaches on health interventions, including on humanitarian aid. Overriding health systems approaches might increase tension in fragile and conflict affected contexts, because at odds with goals typically associated with immediate emergency response to populations’ needs. Especially in protracted crisis, quality and timeliness of humanitarian response can be compromised, with strain on impartiality, targeting the most vulnerable, prioritising direct health benefits and most effective strategies. State-building focus could shift health aid priorities away from sick people and disease. Precedence of state institutions support over immediate, effective health service delivery can reduce population level results. As consequence people might question health workers’ intention to privilege health above political, ethnic or other alliances, altering health and humanitarian workers’ perception. Particularly in conflict, neither health system nor state are impartial bystanders. Summary In spite of scarce evidence on benefits of health systems support for state-building, current dominant line of thought among donors might influence aid strategies and modalities in settings of crisis, conflict and longer-term health system fragility. Negative consequences may arise from dominance of political agendas over health needs, with risk for effectiveness, nature and perception of health interventions. Potential effects in at least three key health areas merit critical review: quality of humanitarian health interventions, tangible contributions to population level health benefits, perception of health and humanitarian workers. To keep health needs as yardstick to determine effective health and humanitarian priority investments, is challenging.