In 1984 a young British doctor returned from Afghanistan with a profound understanding of the connection between health and poverty.
He wrote a vivid account of life in marginalised communities in the mountains of Afghanistan for the Guardian newspaper, depicting malnutrition, frequent child deaths and people walking for nine days to see a doctor. He described the lack of support for people there, and how development organisations were unable to help because they were either not able or not willing to face the ‘political hot potato’.
In small type at the end of the article was his phone number and a request that anyone interested in strengthening health services in Afghanistan contact him. The responses were overwhelming.
Doctors, nurses and development workers assembled to become the first Health Poverty Action staff and set up an organisation that would stand in partnership with marginalised communities for decades to come (then known as Health Unlimited).
This organisation would specialise in the connection between health and poverty. One of its defining characteristics would be to prioritise the people and issues missed out by everyone else – going where others could not or would not.
It would also recognise that, especially for the poorest, tackling one problem in isolation might achieve little more than change the cause of their death. So right from the start it took an integrated and multi-disciplinary approach. In its first year – in southern Afghanistan – Health Poverty Action focused not just on medical care, but also on improving access to nutritious food and clean water.
This was the time of the Soviet war. During such conflicts it is almost always the poorest and most marginalised who suffer most, often living in remote and inaccessible areas. In the years since that first project we have seen how often severely poor and neglected populations – often indigenous people or ethnic minorities – are living in post-conflict situations.
Health Poverty Action has developed valuable relationships of trust with many communities like this, who have learnt through bitter experience to trust few outsiders. We always respect the fact that our role is to strengthen them, in their struggle for health. The way forward should be the one they choose. Health Poverty Action doesn’t set up its own parallel systems, but helps communities build on what is already there and demand their rights.
Today, Health Poverty Action works in 13 countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America. We continue to go where other organisations can’t or won’t. We continue to emphasise the connection between health and poverty. And we continue to tackle the two together, in integrated ways.
We remain strongly rooted in the communities we work with, the vast majority of our staff coming from the populations they serve. Alongside this we do policy and campaigns work at national and international levels, to help change the policies and practices that cause and sustain poverty, and deny poor and marginalised people their health rights.
The People’s Health Movement and Alma-Ata principles
Health Poverty Action is part of a global movement.
In 1978, health campaigners worldwide achieved a major breakthrough at the UN Alma-Ata Conference on Primary Health Care. This conference statement signalled a new approach to health care, often described as the ‘primary health care approach’ or the ‘Alma-Ata principles’ – deeply rooted in the social and structural determinants of health (such as poverty eradication), and emphasising the importance of health care being accountable and accessible to the people it serves. A global target of achieving “Health for All” by the year 2000 was established.
Health Poverty Action was born out of this primary health care movement. We have always been part of it, and it remains our primary global network (now known as the People’s Health Movement).
The title ‘People’s Health Movement’ came into being in the year 2000. The world had moved away from the Alma-Ata principles towards a more market-led approach (championed by the World Bank). Instead of seeing Health For All, the last millennium ended amid a global health crisis.
In response, a worldwide People’s Health Assembly was called. Thousands of health campaigners and civil society representatives (including Health Poverty Action) gathered together in Bangladesh – and the People’s Health Movement was born. This global network of grassroots activists, civil society organisations and academic institutions, particularly from developing countries, continues to work for health justice – so that one day the vision of Health For All will become reality.
The People’s Health Movement’s history, analysis and positioning is a fundamental part of Health Poverty Action’s identity. This is recognised by Health Poverty Action being one of only a handful of organisations in the world that is awarded the status of being formally affiliated to the movement.
Changing our name from Health Unlimited to Health Poverty Action
In 2010 we refreshed our identity. For the 25 years prior, ‘Health Unlimited’ served the cause well, but we increasingly found that it didn’t easily communicate what kind of organisation we are. As a result we changed our name to Health Poverty Action, to better reflect the fundamental connection between poverty and health.