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A population’s health and wellbeing is primarily a national responsibility. Every state owes all of its inhabitants a comprehensive package of essential health goods and services under its obligations to respect, protect, and fulfill the human right to health. Yet health is also a global responsibility. Every state has a duty to ensure a safe and healthy world, with particular attention to the needs of the world’s poorest people. Improving health and reducing unconscionable health inequalities is both an international obligation under the human right to health and a matter of global social justice.

The mutual obligations of states to safeguard the health of their own inhabitants and the health of people everywhere are poorly defined, with serious adverse consequences for world health. These obligations must be better understood. Central questions of vital importance to the health of the world’s population include: What are the duties of all states to ensure the right to the highest attainable standard of health for all their inhabitants? What are the components of a comprehensive package of essential goods and services under the right to health to which people everywhere are entitled? How specifically can states’ duties to govern well be incorporated into and realized through the health system?

One of the most inadequately understood obligations is the responsibility of the international community to augment the capacity of low- and middle-income states to ensure their population’s health, with the specific contours of this obligation ill-defined. Indeed, international financial assistance is framed as “aid,” rather than an expression of mutual responsibility, leaving the flawed impression that international health assistance is a matter of charitable discretion rather than an international human rights obligation. The approach to health assistance as charity rather than as an obligation also means that this assistance is unreliable over the longer-term, leading to the reluctance of low- and middle-income countries to use it for recurrent public health expenditures.

Continued and accelerated improvements in global health will require significant and reliable funding at a time of extended economic uncertainty and budget belt-tightening in many countries. Progress on global health therefore risks stagnating unless states have clarity on, accept, and adhere to national and international obligations to respect, protect, and fulfill the human right to health.

Translating state obligations into improved health will also require building a more robust and effective global health governance structure. Current global health initiatives are too often undermined by a host of now well-recognized weaknesses: Global health actors do not sufficiently coordinate their activities with each other or the host countries, leading to fragmentation, nor do they make and keep longer-term funding commitments, leading to unpredictability. Development partners do not set the priorities required to meet all human health needs, and lack accountability for their own global health commitments. Host countries are not empowered to take “ownership” of health planning and programs. And the international community does not adequately monitor and evaluate programmatic effectiveness.

Our aim is to propose a coherent global health governance framework for the post-MDG period that will clarify national and global responsibilities for health, enable countries to effectively carry out these responsibilities, and create accountability around them. In order to achieve this, we are establishing the Joint Action and Learning Initiative on National and Global Responsibilities for Health (JALI). The primary purpose of the JALI is to catalyze and facilitate research, broad consultations, and campaigns that will lead to a global compact. Towards this end, the JALI will rigorously and systematically address the following issues:

• Clarify the essential package of health goods and services to which all human beings are entitled as part of their right to health; • Clarify the responsibility of all states, even the poorest, to provide this essential package of health goods and services to all of their inhabitants; • Assess the gap between the conditions (financial and others) for the provision of an essential package of health goods and services, and the domestic capacity of and use of that capacity by poorer countries—the gap for which the international community should take responsibility; • Clarify the international responsibility to build the capacity of low- and middle-income states to provide an essential package of health goods and services to their inhabitants; • Clarify the principles of good governance, both nationally and globally, including transparency, honesty, and accountability. • Propose a coherent global health governance architecture to ensure robust national and global responsibilities for health.

In particular, the JALI will answer the following four key questions:

1. What are the essential services and goods guaranteed to every human being under the human right to health? 2. What is the responsibility that all states have for the health of their own populations? 3. What is the responsibility of all countries to ensure the health of the world's population? 4. What kind of global health governance is needed to ensure that all states live up to their mutual responsibilities?

Publication Citation

World Health Report Background Paper No. 53, 2010