Saturday April 7 is World Health Day, an annual event the World Health Organization hosts to call attention to public health challenges across the planet. Although these health challenges are not confined to developing countries, many of the world’s low-income and least-developed countries lack the basic infrastructure, energy, and access to finance that is essential to ensuring food and water security and supporting a healthy population.
The World Health Organization (WHO) offers an abundance of statistics that underscore how public health problems are often development challenges: One-quarter of the world’s population live in countries that face clean water shortages due to a lack of infrastructure. Twenty-three developing countries face severe shortages of basic medical equipment like CT scanning devices, and seven countries have no CT scanners at all. WHO also says that the poorest of the world’s poor – defined as those living on $2 or less a day – also tend to have the worst health.
Indeed, while healthy aging is the theme of this year’s World Health Day, life expectancies in different regions around the world highlight disparities of a decade or more between the developed and the developing world. Life expectancy, at birth, is 79 in the United States, 69 in Guatemala, 60 in Ghana and 54 in Ethiopia, according to WHO data.
In working to mobilize private capital to address critical development challenges around the world, OPIC often supports projects that directly or indirectly promote better health. Last month, OPIC’s Board of Directors approved $150 million in political risk insurance to support the rehabilitation of the water purification systems in Ghana, where only about 37% of urban homes and less than 4% of rural homes have piped water systems, and where lack of clean drinking water and sanitation systems causes more than 20,000 deaths each year. This Ghana National Water Infrastructure Modernization Project, being developed by the Belstar Capital Ltd. and Deutsche Bank in partnership with the government of Ghana, builds on a 2011 deal in which OPIC provided $250 million in political risk insurance to Belstar to provide modern medical equipment to 100 hospitals throughout Ghana. OPIC also provided the financing for a water desalination plant in Algeria, which provides clean drinking water to about 350,000 families in and around the city of Algiers.
OPIC has also used microfinance to help improve access to healthcare in some remote parts of the developing world and in 2011 it approved a $5.4 million direct loan to the Medical Credit Fund, which partners with local banks in Sub-Saharan Africa to provide loans to small and medium-sized private healthcare providers serving low-income populations in Tanzania, Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria. By working with this fund, OPIC is able to more efficiently provide financing to a large group of small borrowers. The banks in Africa use the funds to provide hundreds of small loans – some as small as $6,000 – to support incremental upgrades to local medical facilities, such as the purchase of a diagnostic machine or a vehicle to transport medical waste. The loans also support technical assistance to support the quality of care. Borrowers who repay their initial small loans qualify for another, larger loan.