Health ministers urged to think more like economists

Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus called on health ministers at the fifth annual Ministerial Forum for Health Ministers at Harvard to think of health as an integral part of economic development and to recognize productive work by women and young people as a critical factor in advancing national health and economic growth in their nations. Making health a priority could foster opportunities for collaboration with other government ministries and produce a coordinated approach to human development and economic growth, he said.

Ten serving ministers from Africa, Latin America, and Asia participated in the forum, held June 12-15, 2016 at Loeb House in Cambridge, MA. The participants were supported by an expert resource group of 10 former and long-serving cabinet level officials from around the world. The forum, the flagship component of the Ministerial Leadership in Health Program, is a joint initiative of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Kennedy School. Ninety four ministers from 53 countries have participated in the MLIH Program since its launch in 2012.

Yunus and Grameen Bank, which he founded, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for work to “create economic and social development from below.” Grameen Bank’s objective has been to grant poor people micro-credit—small loans on easy terms. According to Yunus, offering small loans to women in impoverished households in Bangladesh has enabled several million women to develop micro-enterprises, or small businesses. The micro-enterprises contributed to declining fertility rates in Bangladesh and increased literacy among women and resulted in better health for their children due to improved household food security and greater access to health and education. Over the past 15 years, he said, the micro-enterprise sector has helped accelerate economic growth in the nation, contributing to a 25% reduction in poverty, even though poverty levels remain high.

Bangladesh, like many of its Asian neighbors, also has maintained high economic growth rates over the past 15 years by capitalizing on the majority youth population, said Yunus. An enabling condition for realizing the prospective economic benefits of the youth bulge characteristic of most developing nations is a healthy, literate, and productive workforce, he said.