Ariel Pablos-Mendez, PhD, is the Assistant Administrator for Global Health

Ariel Pablos-Mendez, MD, MPH, is the Assistant Administrator for Global HealthThis blog is part of a series to coincide with A Promise Renewed in the Americas: ”Reducing Inequalities in Reproductive, Maternal and Child Health Summit“ during September 10-12 in Panama.

This blog is part of a series to coincide with A Promise Renewed in the Americas: ”Reducing Inequalities in Reproductive, Maternal and Child Health Summit“ during September 10-12 in Panama.

I’m in Panama City, Panama for the A Promise Renewed in the Americas: ”Reducing Inequalities in Reproductive, Maternal and Child Health Summit“, where 19 ministers and vice ministers of health from 17 countries throughout the Latin America and Caribbean (LAC) region are gathering together to figure out a game plan on how to further progress in ending preventable child and maternal deaths.

But before I launch in to what I think would be one significant contribution from USAID and others in the donor community, I’d like to brag a bit. Being from Mexico, I’m immensely proud of what the region has been able to accomplish in a relatively short period of time. Almost all LAC countries have reached or are close to reaching their Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) 4 and 5, which address child and maternal health respectively.

The LAC region has led the way with innovative solutions. The concept of Kangaroo Care originated in Colombia in 1982, and is a simple, no-cost intervention that involves skin-to-skin contact between parent and newborn, is responsible for saving newborns by keeping them warm and encourages exclusive breastfeeding. Latin America’s storied success in immunization and polio eradication inspired the rest of the world. Starting in the late 1990’s, Brazil and Mexico began experimenting with conditional cash transfer programs, which has reduced poverty and improved health and other outcomes through the provision of incentive payments for certain behaviors. The approach has since spread throughout the region and now 18 countries have a CCT program with nearly 130 million beneficiaries. The LAC region was also one of the first to adopt the Integrated Management of Childhood Illness (IMCI) approach, which builds on existing efforts to integrate child survival programs at the community level.

Then there is my favorite topic…Universal Health Coverage, which is defined as access for all to appropriate health services without incurring financial hardship. The region has made tremendous strides in UHC with significant health reforms that include the Unified Health System in Brazil, The Social Health Insurance program in Chile, and coverage for 50 million Mexicans under the Popular Health Insurance Program. This fall, Brazil will host the Global Forum on Human Resources for Health dedicated to sharing experiences with the world on how to move towards UHC.

The LAC region should feel deep pride in its health accomplishments, country graduations from assistance and many, many other success stories. But if it were all good news, all these ministers, global health leaders and donors would not be coming together for a summit.  We still have work to do.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, more than 180,000 children under 5 years old and nearly 9,000 mothers still die annually, most of them poor, indigenous and marginalized groups.  Despite two decades of development gains and recent economic growth in LAC countries, a large health disparity remains among and within countries with regard to access and quality of health services. This is especially true for voluntary family planning services which we know dramatically improves maternal and child health and can more broadly contribute to economic and social development and stability.  And on average, countries in the region only spend 3.5 percent of their GDPs on health, and out of pocket expenditures remain high at nearly half of national health expenditure overall.  This is a recipe guaranteed to drive a low- to middle- class family back into poverty with one catastrophic health episode.

But there are things we can do as a global health community, even as we evolve our role as partners in the LAC region.

Here’s the good news. Due to the years of rapid growth, the World Bank estimates that 70 million people in the region have risen out of poverty and 50 million have joined the middle class during the past 10 years. With this transition of economic growth, most low-income countries are reaching middle-income status and it makes sense that international donors would reduce bilateral grants for program implementation and shift toward providing more technical assistance to support government priorities and country ownership. And the LAC region has shown that social inequalities can be generated by economic growth but also tackled with political will.

Governments have led or are currently leading the effort to sharpen and refine their national action plans with costed strategies for maternal, newborn and child survival, and by setting and monitoring five-year milestones. Development partners, in turn, can support national targets by pledging to align their support with government-led action plans and priorities. Private sector partners can spur innovation and help identify new resources for child survival. And through action and advocacy, civil society and faith leaders can support the communities and families whose decisions profoundly influence prospects for maternal and child survival.

Regional solidarity can also play a key role. Region-wide collaboration and exchanges of ideas and knowledge will be a magic ingredient that contributes markedly to the reduction of inequalities. Several countries, including Brazil and Mexico, have already been reaching out with their own know-how and funding, and have begun to forge their own approach to development assistance. This meeting in Panama, like the global Call to Action last June, is but another step in this important effort.

Although USAID LAC will have only two bilateral health programs in Haiti and Guatemala as of 2014, we will continue to provide technical assistance through regional programs aimed at building country capacity on key health issues: health systems, TB control, family planning, and maternal, newborn and child health.  We will continue to coordinate with other U.S. government agencies in-country to maximize the full breadth of our resources and collaborate with country Ministries of Health and other partners “on the ground” to integrate programs and build health systems that support quality care. And we will work to improve information for accountability, and encourage expanded participation in decision-making for better problem solving.

Zero child deaths are hard to attain even in rich countries, but the world as a whole can indeed reach the low mortality levels enjoyed in those countries. And this milestone for our civilization can be attained by our generation. No one government, donor, organization, or campaign will end preventable child and maternal deaths, but together, this IS an attainable goal. I’m looking forward to the outcomes of this Summit over the next few days and look to continue USAID’s deep and successful relationship with the LAC region, understanding full well that success means our eventual departure. As stated in USAID charter by President Kennedy, “We intend during this coming decade of development to achieve a decisive turn-around in the fate of the less-developed world, looking toward the ultimate day when all nations can be self-reliant and when foreign aid will no longer be needed.”  LAC is leading the way.

Resources:

Follow @USAID and @USAIDGH from September 10-12 for live tweets and Facebook content from the conference. Follow the hashtag: #PromiseRenewed or #PromesaRenovada.