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Saving Lives Sustainably

June 10, 2016

By Rosemary Kumwenda - United Nations Development Programme

Standard medical ethics dictate “primum non nocere” (first do no harm).

The health sector provides an indispensable service to the public, playing an essential role in human development as the adage stipulates that health is wealth.

But being a medical doctor is about far more than just the contact with patients. Public health is about doing good for the public. In my early years of medical practice, I witnessed that the environment can have a negative impact on health and vice versa.

The environmental burden caused by healthcare is indisputable. Pharmaceutical residues in the environment are an emerging environmental and health concern, as are the toxic releases of substances such as PVC, dioxin, and mercury found in many medical devices. Procurements are one of the most significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions from the health sector.

We need to ensure public goods are delivered in a safe way. The procurement process presents a huge opportunity to introduce more sustainable practices in the global health sector.

The Sustainable Procurement in the Health Sector (SPHS) initiative offers a vision in which saving lives and environmental sustainability are strongly linked. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 3 calls for ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being, neither of which can be achieved without protecting the health of the planet.

Sustainable health procurement has a major role in lowering the environmental burden of the health sector and has great potential in contributing to inclusive green economies in the context of the SDGs.

What triggered the idea behind the SPHS? It was actually the gap in the procurement practices within the United Nations. The SPHS is an informal initiative that brings together UN agencies and global health financing institutions. Each member agency looks at their own practices internally to ensure that their own procurement officers have the capacity and capability to “green the blue”. We can’t be asking the health sector to be more sustainable when we ourselves aren’t taking steps.

There are major lessons for social and environmental entrepreneurs to take. At a social level, procurement and manufacturing must be rights-based. Skoll Foundation and United Nations Foundation recognized the value and the potential of the SPHS work, and generously support our partnerships with social entrepreneurs to drive impactful social innovations. The SPHS is also considering a closer collaboration with the International Labour Organization (ILO) to ensure that the rights of workers and due diligence is provided in manufacturing and in any type of entrepreneurship. Environmentally, it is important to make sure that entrepreneurs are integrating environmental safeguards in their practices.

Fostering innovation can lead to new partnerships as well. The private sector has an extremely important role to play on sustainable procurement in the health sector, since most of the products that are used in the health sector are produced by the private sector. By partnering with suppliers, manufacturers, and procurers on the green initiative, we can ensure that good practices are sustained.

Every year, we organize a number of capacity development sessions where manufacturers and procurers come together to find a common solution. Both need to know how they can introduce more sustainable manufacturing and procurement practices, no longer solely on the basis of a narrow concept of costs. Before long, it will be necessary to not only lower their direct costs, but to also include external, environmental costs in their calculations. Companies and agencies that will reflect externalities in their cost structures and manufacture products in a more environmentally friendly manner will generate greater value for their customers and communities and send a clear signal of their commitment to operate responsibly.

When we look at the SDGs, we see how they are all interlinked and can have strong impact on each other. Similarly, human health is impacted by many areas other than the health sector. By addressing these together, we have a greater chance of making progress on multiple SDGs and improving both health and the environment.

The recently launched SPHS Annual Report 2015 is a testimony about what can be achieved in saving lives by protecting the planet through a clear vision, global partnerships and market-shaping investments in the health sector. Read it here and visit for the latest news on the SPHS.

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