New Visionaries Documentary on MSH's Work around the World to Air on Public Television
BOSTON, MA (MAY 28, 1999) — "You can't find places where the problem is any clearer than it is here in Dhaka," says Ron O'Connor, MD. He's navigating the crowds of a bustling street in Bangladesh's capital, one of the most densely populated places in the world. O'Connor says that most of the city's people have migrated from the countryside, where family plots have become too small to provide a living. "So they drift to Dhaka, where the prospect of few jobs means a constant daily struggle for survival."
O'Connor's concern about the problem of overpopulation, and other public health problems in the developing world, prompted him to create Management Sciences for Health nearly 30 years ago. A new 30-minute Visionaries documentary to air on PBS now explores O'Connor's vision for the organization and the ideas that shape its work in more than 100 countries.
In a country like Bangladesh - desperately poor, with high rates of illiteracy - the challenge of overpopulation would appear to many to be impossible to solve. O'Connor, however, has seen the people of Bangladesh take on the challenge, make clear progress, and improve the quality of their lives. He believes that, given the right tools, other countries can do the same.
"People in disadvantaged countries deal with many, often relatively simple health problems," he explains. "Children are dying of diarrhea. Women are having children that they don't want and can't afford - problems that we know how to solve. The resources exist. The knowledge exists. Our job is to pull them together."
When he founded MSH, O'Connor did not seek to create an organization that would deliver health services directly, but to provide education and training for those who do. He knew that to build efficient, sustainable health services in developing countries, and to use limited resources wisely, individuals and institutions in those countries needed to understand modern management practices. They needed skills in financial planning, systems for managing drugs and medical supplies, knowledge of quality improvement, and an understanding of how to educate health consumers. So MSH shares expertise with those who work locally, empowering them to solve their own problems.
To see how the approach has worked, Visionaries went to Bangladesh, where rural women have been trained as community health volunteers. The women visit husbands and wives at home in their villages, where they talk openly about the importance of family planning and basic health care. One volunteer, Rashida, radiates pride when she describes her role. "Surely, I am a leader" she says. "Everybody comes to me now. This has brought such incredible change to my life. My husband, my children, and all of the villagers are happy that I work for them."
38,000 volunteers like Rashida work in Bangladesh today, and they have had an enormous impact. "In 1975 women in Bangladesh were, on average, giving birth to seven children," says O'Connor. "In 1995, that number dropped dramatically to four children per woman."
MSH hopes to be similarly effective in South Africa, where the Equity Project was launched in 1997 to improve the condition of rural health services in Eastern Cape Province, one of the country's poorest regions. Visionaries visits the province and finds that MSH has helped health workers there understand why clinics continually ran out of vital medicines. Training in drug management has enabled them to develop a new system that assures a steady supply and helps them distribute medicines in more effective ways. It is one more example of how MSH is helping to make health services more available, effective, efficient and sustainable throughout the world.