ACCRA – In late October, the World Health Organization’s Regional Office for Africa signed an agreement with the United Nations International Telecommunication Union (ITU). The aim of the unlikely partnership is to encourage the use of digital services “to save lives and improve people’s health.” But perhaps the pact’s most innovative feature is the vow to merge financial inclusion strategies with modern health-care delivery.
Financial inclusion is a proven pathway to improving people’s health, especially the health of women in developing countries. Women who can easily access bank accounts or cash payment options tend to invest more in their businesses and families. In turn, they live healthier, more satisfying lives.
Yet, too often, initiatives like the one signed in October focus on one or the other – e-health or financial products like insurance. Because Africans’ ability to earn and save money can be the difference between good care and no care at all, this represents a missed opportunity to help patients and build more resilient communities.
The cost of this choice is disproportionately high for Africa’s women. In Nigeria, for example, 400,000 women live with obstetric fistula, a disabling condition often caused by complications in childbirth. In Tanzania, some 8,000 women die annually during pregnancy or delivery; most of these deaths could be prevented. And, across the continent, women’s life expectancy at birth is just 58 years, compared to more than 80 years in developed countries.
Progress is being made to connect women’s health solutions and financial inclusion. At a recent conference in Dar es Salaam, experts from the technology and financial services sector joined investors, philanthropists, and development specialists to devise ways to make finance work for Africa’s women. Through programs like these, development experts can advocate for digital solutions as a means of social and financial empowerment.
Unfortunately, cooperation like the pact signed in October is the exception, rather than the norm. Banks, regulators, finance ministries, and telecommunications companies all frequently gather to consider financial inclusion without the local and global health community. This must change if we are to build more inclusive platforms for African patients and clients.
The first step is to identify missed opportunities. A big one stems from the disparate approaches to bringing financial services and digitized health care to rural parts of Africa. At the moment, banks and mobile network operators are working to expand their digital banking services to unbanked and under-banked clients. At the same time, community health workers (CHWs) are operating in these regions to prevent, treat, and refer patients to clinics. Combining these efforts makes sense, because both initiatives rely heavily on trust.
Through pre-established networks, CHWs could augment their e-health offerings with financial products, like mobile cash payment systems. Broadening digital disease management and access to health information to include financial wellbeing would create natural synergies. While there are some concerns that adding responsibilities to CHWs could undermine health-care quality, a fragmented approach to prosperity is even more damaging.
Once opportunities for expansion are identified, other issues will need to be addressed before women’s health and financial inclusion programs can be widened. For starters, a lack of sex-disaggregated data makes it difficult to draft policies based on health quality and financial need. Although some countries, such as Burundi and Senegal, are working to improve their gender-specific data collection, a broader, more coordinated push is needed.
Raising the region’s financial literacy will be another challenge. The ability to understand and execute matters of personal finance is the weakest link in transforming women’s opportunities through financial inclusion. Moreover, financial literacy is a pre-requisite for the rollout of financing initiatives, such as programs that support women-led small and micro-enterprises.
If financial literacy levels can be raised, women can access resources such as land and credit, tools that hold the keys to business development, social mobility, and personal growth. Progress has been made in leveling the playing field, but these gains must be sustained.
The agreement between the WHO and the ITU will help promote wealth creation in parts of Africa where access to health care and financial services is lacking. To maintain this momentum, deeper commitments are needed, especially from the global health community. But, however African governments proceed in digitizing their health and financial services offerings, women’s needs must remain at the center of any solution.
Carl Manlan, a New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute, is Chief Operating Officer at the Ecobank Foundation.
By Carl Manlan