Address at the South Asia Regional Ministerial Meeting

Address by Ursula Schaefer-Preuss, ADB Vice President, at the South Asia Regional Ministerial Meeting, Colombo, Sri Lanka


Distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen: thank you very much for the opportunity to address all of you on behalf of the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Foremost, let me begin by thanking our hosts, the Government of Sri Lanka. I think it is appropriate that this important meeting is held here in Sri Lanka, as the country has made considerable progress in health outcomes. Starting in the early 1950s, Sri Lanka was able to reduce the maternal mortality rate by half in just three years; and then, in the subsequent years, it was halved again.1This impressive gain has been sustained to the recent years, which exemplifies the strong commitment of the country on equitable and affordable health care system.

Today, I hope to discuss on the following three themes which I think are relevant to this important conference:

Finance and Health Challenges

As I have mentioned about Sri Lanka already, we all know that South Asia has achieved some very impressive health outcomes. But we also know that South Asia still faces enormous health challenges, including:

Thus, despite the region's progress, we have still many challenges facing us. Many factors explain the breadth, and depth, of these challenges: poverty, customs, class, caste, gender, education, environmental factors and so on. However, today, I hope to focus on another key issue: financing, and particularly on public financing which is ultimately in the hands of the Governments. Some things really stand out when looking at health financing in South Asia.
For example:

Ladies and gentlemen - I believe all of us need to respond to these gloomy figures and facts. Again, this is why I believe this event is a very important one.

ADB's Activities

To meet the increasing challenge of the region, ADB is responding in a number of ways. First, ADB is selectively, and in partnership with other agencies, providing direct, long term, development finance, to help DMCs expand and improve public expenditure on health. For example, as recently as December last year, ADB approved a $ 400 million program loan focused on maternal and child health in Punjab, Pakistan. Similarly, ADB has provided over$24 million development finance to the Bangladesh Urban Primary Health Care Project, a project that resulted in the following:

Second, ADB is leveraging its core business lines - and especially water and sanitation - to improve health outcomes. This is important in South Asia where only 23% of rural households have access to improve sanitation, a rate lower than rural areas in Sub Saharan Africa or indeed any other region in the world.10 As part of this conscious effort to strategically use our core business lines to improve health outcomes, ADB has recently decided it will measure and monitor health outcomes in all its water and sanitation programs - an important decision when "what gets measured gets done".

Third, ADB is actively generating and supporting "knowledge products" that can shape and inform better public financing policy. For example, ADB has just launched a regional study that analyzes the links between out of pocket expenditures for maternal and child health on the one hand and, on the other hand, inequity and impoverishment. That study covers many countries, including those from South Asia. In partnership with others, ADB is also supporting analytical work to identify those "best buys" which will help achieve the health MDGs, especially as they relate to women, newborn and children. ADB has also been supporting economic analysis of disease prevention and control, including for example cost - effectiveness analysis of prevention of HIV and AIDS amongst intravenous drug users in Kathmandu, Nepal. In partnership with others, ADB also supports analytical work on regional pandemics, national health accounts, and so on, all of which improve the basis for public policy and better financial decision making and resource allocations.

The Region's Activities

Despite the efforts from ADB - our goals can not be achieved without the strong partnership and commitment from the Government in the region. We have also recognized that Governments face many, many, competing challenges and priorities in their budget decisions, especially in the current circumstances of sharp contractions in economic growth. But a global financial crisis and prospects of very constrained budgets is the very time when it is even more important to set health expenditure priorities well. Please allow me to reiterate: a time of global financial stress and pressure on public budgets is the very time when we need to drive out waste, allocate resources to where they have the biggest effect, and focus expenditure on the really big strategic wins. The current crisis can also be seen as an opportunity to make some much needed reforms.

And while it is for Governments to decide such priorities and strategic wins, allow me to suggest four areas that would seem to have genuinely strategic impact and pay off, especially in this region.


Ladies and Gentlemen: thank you again for the opportunity to participate in this important event. I want to conclude my address with a clear appreciation that South Asia has achieved some remarkable health outcomes. Yet even with dynamic and sustained economic growth, and expanding fiscal space over recent years, health outcomes often lag for the poor, and public health financing has not been sufficiently effective, efficient, or equitable. The current global financial crisis means Ministries of Finance are - quite correctly - going to demand even greater value for money from expenditure proposals from all sectors. We believe that well designed public expenditure on health is justified in its own right - it is a 'merit good'. But increased and better allocated public expenditure on health is also justified because it is an investment in national productivity, an investment in social inclusiveness and social capital, and a key responsibility and role of Government.

While the key decisions must - as always - be made by Governments themselves, ADB also wishes to be helpful, either through program lending in collaboration with other development partners, or through the generation of knowledge products. Thank you.


1 Pathmanathan I et al. Investing in Maternal Health. Learning from Malaysia and Sri Lanka. World Bank. 2003. Page 2.
2 UNICEF. The State of The World's Children 2009. New York. 2009 Table 2 page 125. Low birth weight is defined as infants weighing less than 2500 grams at birth.
3 World Bank. Health Financing Revisited. A Practitioner's Guide. 2006. Page 41.
4 WHO. World Health Statistics 2008 pp 84


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