First Lady addresses Harvard University Forum, says good health key to harnessing demographic dividend

First Lady Margaret Kenyatta addressing the Harvard University Annual Leadership Forum for Education and Health Ministers in the United States of America on June 11, 2018.
First Lady Margaret Kenyatta has underlined the importance of good health as key to harnessing Kenya’s demographic dividend and maximizing human capital investment.
Speaking on June 11, when she addressed the Harvard University Annual Leadership Forum for Education and Health Ministers in the US, the First Lady said good health was critical in speeding up the demographic transition and improving productivity of the workforce, particularly for women and the youth.
“As such, it is critical to make strategic investments that would improve health outcomes especially in reversing trends in HIV infections amongst young people, negative consequences of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and early marriages,” she said.
At the forum, the First Lady also shared her experience with the Beyond Zero campaign under the theme “Catalyzing the Demographic Dividend: Enabling Women and youth”.
She emphasized that it was essential to improve child survival by focusing on prevention of infectious diseases, boosting immunization, improving nutrition and strengthening interventions for the first 1000 days.
The First Lady disclosed that it was the quest to eliminate maternal and neo-natal mortality, and HIV infections among women and newborns that drove her to launch the Beyond Zero campaign.
She said the principle idea of Beyond Zero was to spur a ‘movement’ across the country about access to quality healthcare, an issue that weighed heavily on the minds of many Kenyans.
“The idea needed an anchor – the mobile clinics, a platform and innovative fundraising methods to raise capital for implementation of the initiative across the country,” she said.
The Beyond Zero campaign has seen mobile clinics distributed to each of the 47 counties in Kenya in the last five years, taking quality healthcare services closer to communities even in the remotest parts of the country.
Why were women across Kenya (in urban and rural setting) dying while giving life? Why, for example, were children in Marsabit – Kenya’s largest county by land mass coverage – dying before celebrating their 5th birthday? How could this preventable problem be tackled and make healthcare more accessible to marginalized groups?
The First Lady told the forum – attended by Health and Education Ministers from 15 African countries – that these were some of the questions that were bothering her, leading to the introduction of the fully equipped mobile clinics as an innovative way of addressing the problem.
She pointed out that from her experience with Beyond Zero, tackling an issue as big as provision of quality healthcare across the country required more than a collection of capable minds.
“It required boldness, innovativeness, a spirit of humility and capacity to critically question the status quo to move beyond ‘business as usual’ and dare to do things differently,” she said.
The First Lady added: “I know that the Harvard Leadership Program prides itself on nurturing exactly those kinds of qualities and I hope I will encourage you to embrace purposeful confidence to tackle challenges that bring transformative change.”
In this regard, The First Lady informed the forum that the Beyond Zero campaign is Kenya’s first public-private partnership of national scale focusing on maternal and child health.
She assured that the initiative will continuously galvanize high-level leadership, catalyze action, build partnership and mobilise resources towards reducing maternal and child deaths, ending new HIV infections among children and reducing HIV related deaths among women and children in Kenya.
“Private sector involvement in health is sometimes promoted from an ideological viewpoint. However, for Beyond Zero, private sector inclusion was fundamental because a healthy and empowered workforce needs to take charge of its health, make lifestyle decisions and be financially stable to save, borrow and invest,” she said.
Another pre-condition for success of Beyond Zero, the First Lady said, was working closely with the National Government in complimenting efforts geared towards provision of healthcare for all.
She pointed out that in working with the Ministry of Health, Beyond Zero was aligned to maternal and child Health policies.
“In 2014, when we launched the initiative, the Ministry of Health also invested an estimate of $400 million in initiatives to reduce HIV transmission and maternal and child mortality, to increase the number of skilled healthcare providers and to equip the existing facilities with relevant supplies,” she said.
At county level where the responsibility of health provision in Kenya lies, the First Lady said Beyond Zero initiative has become a major partner to the devolved units that are now investing heavily in health issues and improving health services to the hard to reach populations.
She said the Kenyan public was the third key ingredient for the successful implementation of Beyond Zero.
“By participating in the half marathons and championing conversations on conventional and social media, Kenyans successfully stimulated social dialogue on improved health, seeking behaviour and social accountability for the health of mothers and children,” the First Lady said.
She cited the reduction of infant mortality from 52 to 39 per 1,000 live births and the fall of under five years mortality from 74 to 52 per 1,000 as some of the milestones the campaign has achieved in the last five years.
In the same period, the First Lady said, maternal mortality dropped from 488 to 362 per 100,000.
She commended the Kenya Government for introducing a programme that is investing over $30 million to build and upgrade hospitals across the country, equipping them with state-of-the-art diagnostic equipment which citizens can access at minimal costs.
“The Government has also removed public hospital charges for maternity services in order to enable expecting mothers and their unborn children to receive critical care at zero cost,” the First Lady said.
The National Health Insurance (NHIF) coverage now incorporates expectant mothers and this raised deliveries by skilled attendants from 44 percent in 2013 to 66 percent in 2017, she said.
The First Lady emphasized that in the journey to ‘leave no one behind’, governments must foster inter-sectoral action for resilient health systems at all levels.
“We must also invest in health systems, including human resources and infrastructure with the goal of enhancing access to quality health services and guaranteeing adequate financing for the health sector,” the First Lady said.
She challenged participants at the forum to turn their attention to the daunting issues of the 21st century and use all resources at their disposal to build sustainable solutions that count for decades to come.