How do we explain the paradox that Bangladesh has made remarkable progress in health and human development, yet its achievements have taken place within a health system that is frequently characterised as weak, in terms of inadequate physical and human infrastructure and logistics, and low performing? We argue that the development of a highly pluralistic health system environment, defined by the participation of a multiplicity of different stakeholders and agents and by ad hoc, diffused forms of management has contributed to these outcomes by creating conditions for rapid change. We use a combination of data from official sources, research studies, case studies of specific innovations, and in-depth knowledge from our own long-term engagement with health sector issues in Bangladesh to lay out a conceptual framework for understanding pluralism and its outcomes. Although we argue that pluralism has had positive effects in terms of stimulating change and innovation, we also note its association with poor health systems governance and regulation, resulting in endemic problems such as overuse and misuse of drugs. Pluralism therefore requires active management that acknowledges and works with its polycentric nature. We identify four key areas where this management is needed: participatory governance, accountability and regulation, information systems, and capacity development. This approach challenges some mainstream frameworks for managing health systems, such as the building blocks approach of the WHO Health Systems Framework. However, as pluralism increasingly defines the nature and the challenge of 21st century health systems, the experience of Bangladesh is relevant to many countries across the world.
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