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Beth Duff-Brown
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As we watch President Trump tell the states they have to do more to find their own personal protective equipment for their health-care workers, governors lash back with demands for a national leader who will unlock the emergency powers of the federal government.

The response to the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed major weaknesses in the federalist system of public health governance, which divides powers among the federal, state and local governments, argues SHP’s Michelle Mello in this New England Journal of Medicine commentary.

The coronavirus, she writes, “is exactly the type of infectious disease for which federal public health powers and emergencies were conceived: it is highly transmissible, crosses borders efficiently, and threatens our national infrastructure and economy.”

“Strong, decisive national action is therefore imperative,” writes Mello, a professor of medicine and a professor of law, and Rebecca L. Haffajee, a policy researcher at the RAND Corporation. “Yet the federal response has been alarmingly slow to develop, fostering confusion about the nature of the virus and necessary steps to address it.”

The authors warn this “lack of interjurisdictional coordination has and will cost lives.”

Though states must respect constitutionally protected individual rights — such as due process, equal protection and freedom of travel and association — the Constitution puts primary responsibility for public health with the states, cities and counties. It gives them the right to exercise broad police powers to protect their citizens’ health during ordinary times.

In extraordinary times — like the one we’re experiencing now — states and the federal government can activate emergency powers to expand their abilities to act swiftly and protect human life and health. All 50 states and dozens of localities and the federal government have declared emergencies.

“The resulting executive powers are sweeping: they can range from halting business operations, to restricting freedom of movement, to limiting civil rights and liberties, to commandeering property,” Mello and Haffajee write in the NEJM Perspective.

This emergency legal framework has led to too few checks-and-balances on poor decisions—historically, in the direction of being overly aggressive, write the authors. They note a good example is when New Jersey’s governor ordered a nurse returning from Sierra Leone during the 2014 Ebola outbreak into quarantine, contrary to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

Too Little Too Late? 

“Today, we find ourselves in the opposite situation: the federal government has done too little,” the authors write. “Perhaps because of misleading early statements from federal officials about the gravity of the COVID-19 threat, public sentiment has weighed against taking steps that would impose hardships on families and businesses.”

The tumbling stock market and unprecedented 10 million unemployment claims last month also have created further pressure by the federal government to project a sense of calm.

“The resulting laconic federal response has meant that a precious opportunity to contain COVID-19 through swift, unified national action has been lost — a scenario that mirrors what occurred in Italy,” they write.

So the states had to pick up where the federal government fell short, the authors note. Many jurisdictions issued stay-at-home orders; others did not. As of March 31, more than a dozen governors had yet to issue statewide stay-at-home orders and eight had only ordered partial measures. Yet many jurisdictions turn a blind eye, they note, to noncompliance with social-distancing recommendations issued by the CDC, as evidenced by crowded beaches and children congregating in public parks.

“This is the dark side of federalism: it encourages a patchwork response to epidemics,” the authors write.

“A federal takeover of all public health orders would be out of step with our federalist structure,” the authors state, but there remain three good options:

  • “The White House must reverse its current trajectory toward prematurely weakening existing federal measures and the resolve of governors who are enforcing stay-at-home orders and school closures.” Trump said last week he wanted the United States “opened up and raring to go by Easter.” A few days later, he heeded the call of medical experts and extended social-distancing guidelines until the end of April, but public health experts believe the crisis will likely be with us longer.
  • Congress should “use its spending power to further encourage states to follow a uniform playbook for community mitigation that includes measures for effective enforcement of public health orders.” It could threaten to withhold some federal funds from states that do not comply.
  • “Congress could leverage its interstate-commerce powers to regular economic activities that affect the interstate spread” of COVID-19, such as restricting large businesses from traveling and operating across state lines in ways that expose workers to risk.

The White House could also make further use of the Defense Production Act (DPA) to direct private companies to produce badly needed ventilators and personal protective equipment for health-care workers, the authors write. Trump has ordered General Motors to manufacture ventilators and the $2 trillion stimulus package includes $1 billion for DPA projects.                                                                     

“Learning is difficult in the midst of an emergency, but one lesson from the COVID-19 epidemic is already clear: when epidemiologists warn that a pathogen has pandemic potential, the time to fly the flag of local freedom is over,” the authors conclude. “Yet national leadership in epidemic response works only if it is evidence-based. It is critical that the U.S. response to COVID-19 going forward be not only national, but rational.”

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Krysten Crawford
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When it comes to rooting out wasteful spending in federal entitlement programs, attention has long focused on preventing beneficiaries from gaming the system.

A new Stanford study identifies a fresh cause for concern: the for-profit companies that the U.S. government increasingly tasks with providing benefits to Americans who are often poor, elderly or both.

In a new working paper, Maria Polyakova, an assistant professor of medicine, finds that outsourcing public assistance services to third parties can lead to unanticipated effects on prices as well as on which beneficiaries gain the most from public dollars.

That’s because companies are in the business of making money. And when they know which of their consumers are likely to get certain levels of public support, they will try to use this information to maximize their profits, according to the research published this week by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Polyakova shows that when companies act in their self-interest, unforeseen inequities and inefficiencies can arise that may hurt some consumers while helping others. At a time when governments in the United States and around the world are increasingly turning to the private sector to provide public benefits — namely in health care and in education — Polyakova says policymakers need to better understand how these intermediaries are affecting welfare programs.

“Policymakers have to be more careful about introducing intermediaries into public services,” says Polyakova, who is a faculty fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR), and teaches at the Stanford School of Medicine. She is also a core faculty member of Stanford Health Policy. “They may want to revisit how they think about outsourcing when research is showing that there are unintended consequences that may be positive or negative.”

Health Insurance Pricing under the Microscope

Intermediaries are central to a number of public services where the U.S. government provides subsidies to consumers, often based on income, age or employment status. Prominent examples include privately-managed Medicare Advantage Plans, drug benefits under Medicare Plan D, and charter schools in secondary education.

According to Polyakova, most research into wasteful spending within government subsidies has focused on consumers and how they try to trick the system by, for example, hiding income to qualify for a tax credit or cash assistance. Governments, though imperfect, have long been seen as benign players.

The increasing involvement of for-profit companies, she says, shows there’s a need to closely examine what’s happening on the supply side of public welfare.

To do that, Polyakova found an ideal setting: the federal health insurance marketplace created by the Affordable Care Act of 2010. Most consumers who shop for coverage through receive a subsidy in the form of a tax credit that covers all or part of their insurance premium. The amount of their tax credit is tied to their household income.

The dollars at stake are significant. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that in 2019 the federal government will pay $560 billion in subsidies for privately-provided health insurance, including the spending on the Affordable Care Act marketplaces as well as other similarly designed programs. That figure is expected to hit $1.2 trillion over the next decade.

The Neighborhood Effect

Polyakova and her co-author — Stephen Ryan of Washington University’s Olin Business School — analyzed data from 2017 covering more than 9 million enrollees across some 2,570 counties around the country. They find that the presence of an intermediary significantly impacts insurance prices and key measures economists use to calculate the effects of a policy beyond a given benefit’s face value.

Specifically, they show that health insurance companies will have an incentive to raise premiums in markets where more consumers receive the higher tax credit because their incomes are low and the government is required to subsidize them.

On the flip side, insurers will charge lower prices in places where such subsidized consumers are less willing to buy coverage if they think it costs too much.

To illustrate the unintended consequences of the insurers’ actions, the researchers point out that, in the first instance where prices increase, consumers with incomes that are slightly higher than other community members will end up paying more for the same coverage. Under the second scenario, consumers who don’t qualify for the tax credit because their incomes are too high benefit from the lower premiums aimed at nearby residents.

“The price you pay for insurance will depend on who your neighbors are,” says Polyakova. “If you live near people who are poorer than you, you will be affected differently than if you live near people who are richer than you.”

Change the subsidy, change the calculation

Like with financial aid, tax credits for insurance coverage are calculated based on consumer income. But there is another type of subsidy that policymakers could use — flat vouchers, in which all members of a market receive the same benefit regardless of income, age or some other characteristic. For their research, Polyakova and Ryan also analyze how flat vouchers that only vary by age, but not by income, would hypothetically alter private health insurance prices in the federal Affordable Care Act marketplace.

Here, too, the scholars find different impacts on different types of consumers whether the subsidy is based on income or delivered as a flat voucher.

The analyses, says Polyakova, drive home the point that policymakers need to understand that there are trade-offs to relying on for-profit companies to provide government services and that the type of subsidy offered can alter how they calculate prices in disparate ways.

“There’s nothing wrong with companies trying to maximize their profits,” says Polyakova. “But sophisticated policymakers need to understand what happens when private markets get involved.”

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Teal Pennebaker
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Millions of women in India give birth at home, where they don’t have easy access to medical help if things go wrong. And things go wrong often. The country has one of the world’s highest rates of maternal and neonatal deaths.

To curb this problem, the government pays eligible pregnant women to deliver their babies in an accredited medical facility. With both a financial incentive and the promise of a safer childbirth, it would stand to reason that most Indian women should choose to deliver their babies in a hospital.

But that’s not the case.

Most babies are still born in homes. Early numbers from the financial incentive programs show less than half of eligible women are choosing to participate.

Stanford researchers Grant Miller and Nomita Divi think the answer to this quandary—and so many other well-intentioned policies that fall short—needs to first be considered from the perspective of patients, doctors and other health care providers. And that, they say, is a different approach than most health interventions take.

Miller and Divi are spearheading the Stanford India Health Policy Initiative, a program that seeks to rethink health interventions based on Indian health care users’ and providers’ motivations for seeking care. And to get there, the initiative’s focus comes from the people who confront these problems every day.

The program, which is connected to the International Policy Implementation Lab at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute, first brings together community leaders for an in-depth discussion of where best to focus efforts. Next, teams (including students) take these recommendations and spend several months conducting fieldwork to understand health care decision-making, both from the side of patients and providers.  From this foundation, the initiative produces reports detailing the behavioral motivations for why certain dimensions of health care are or are not working.

“To really understand why health policies succeed or fail, you have to see the world through the eyes of the providers and patients,” said Miller, an associate professor of medicine and a core faculty member of FSI’s Center for Health Policy and Primary Care Outcome Research. “A lot of programs are created because they seem logical from the outside. But if you don't understand a patient’s priorities or motives, your program may not work.”

Miller and Divi first applied this approach to the very issue of childbirth in India. Why weren’t more women giving birth in hospitals when there were seemingly logical reasons to do so?

Over the summer, Miller, Divi, their Indian partners, and Stanford graduate and medical students set out to answer this question. During seven weeks of field interviews and subsequent analysis, the students—with guidance from Miller and Divi —identified reasons for why Indian women weren’t accepting a stipend to have their babies in the hospital. Some of these reasons included hidden costs of delivering a baby (like the transportation cost to the hospital or unexpected medical expenses), pressure from mothers-in-law to follow tradition and deliver at home, and fear of unwanted medical procedures like Caesarean sections or sterilization.

This understanding of why patients and providers don’t always make seemingly logical health care decisions is exactly what the India Health Policy Initiative is after.

“So much academic research is driven by donors or journal articles that we read,” Miller said. “So it seemed like we were starting from the wrong place in identifying health policy challenges that we should work on.”

In January, Miller and Divi convened a group of Indian health policy leaders, health care workers, academics and entrepreneurs to understand the challenges they faced in their daily work, and what health care questions they would most like to know more about. From this two-day meeting, the group identified two focus areas for the India Health Policy Initiative over the coming year: understanding more deeply the motivations and activities of both formal and informal health care providers, and what Indians value about care from the informal sector. These informal providers are often doctors or nurses with little or no medical training that are used by many low-income Indians.

To help answer these questions and provide opportunities for students, the Stanford India Health Policy Initiative engages top students from across the university. “We want to provide our students with an experience that will hopefully shape the way they think in their future careers,” said Divi, the initiative's project manager. “And we try to achieve this by training our students to help make sense of urgent health delivery challenges, immersing them in an intensive field experience, and teaching them how to generate insights.”

To better understand providers’ motivations, as well as patients’ perspectives on both the informal and formal providers, Miller and Divi will work with this new team to carry out qualitative fieldwork this summer.

Miller explained that the approach is very anthropological.

”To be able to understand these issues, we all have to see the world through another person’s eyes, whether that be a formal or informal health provider or a patient,” he said. “This approach fundamentally relies on strong collaboration with Indian partners.”

The initiative’s teams will spend their weeks interviewing different health care providers and patients in a handful of Indian villages, taking copious notes and ultimately translating hundreds of interviews into findings.

Roshan Shankar, MS/MPP ’14, worked as part of the initiative’s team last summer, focusing on understanding pregnant women’s decisions about where to deliver their babies. After considering several summer internships with consulting firms and international organizations, Shankar declined these opportunities, instead opting to work with the Stanford India Health Policy Initiative.

Shankar is from New Delhi and has always planned to move back to his home country and work in government after school. He said the India Health Policy Initiative was a way to better understand his nation and the pressing challenges facing it.

“I’m used to sitting at a table and not venturing out,” Shankar said. “This experience showed me that things are much more different on the ground than on paper.”

After his work with the Stanford Health Policy Initiative, Shankar said he is now certain he wants to return to India and work in government.

“It was a humbling and enlightening experience. I think the way we did this entire analysis will affect the way I do any work there,” he said. “It will ensure that I do a more effective evaluation of the policies and programs that I work on, and start by going to see people who use them.”

The Stanford India Health Policy Initiative is supported by several organizations including the Center for Innovation in Global Health and the Office of International Affairs.

Teal Pennebaker is a freelance writer.


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Adam Gorlick
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Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, a Stanford law professor and expert on administrative law and governance, public organizations, and transnational security, will lead the university’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

The announcement was made in Feb. 11 by Provost John Etchemendy and Ann Arvin, Stanford’s vice provost and dean of research.

“Professor Cuéllar brings a remarkable breadth of experience to his new role as FSI director, which is reflected in his many achievements as a legal scholar and his work on diverse federal policy initiatives over the past decade,” Arvin said. “He is deeply committed to enhancing FSI’s academic programs and ensuring that it remains an intellectually rich environment where faculty and students can pursue important interdisciplinary and policy-relevant research.”

Known to colleagues as “Tino,” Cuéllar starts his role as FSI director on July 1.

Cuéllar has been co-director of FSI’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) since 2011, and has served in the Clinton and Obama administrations. In his role as FSI director, he’ll oversee 11 research centers and programs – including CISAC – along with a variety of undergraduate and graduate education initiatives on international affairs.  His move to the institute's helm will be marked by a commitment to build on FSI’s interdisciplinary approach to solving some of the world’s biggest problems.

“I am deeply honored to have been asked to lead FSI. The institute is in a unique position to help address some of our most pressing international challenges, in areas such as governance and development, health, technology, and security,” Cuéllar said. “FSI’s culture embodies the best of Stanford – a commitment to rigorous research, training leaders and engaging with the world – and excels at bringing together accomplished scholars from different disciplines.”

Cuéllar, 40, is a senior fellow at FSI and the Stanley Morrison Professor of Law at the law school, where he will continue to teach and conduct research. He succeeds Gerhard Casper, Stanford’s ninth president and a senior fellow at FSI.

“We are deeply indebted to former President Casper for accomplishing so much as FSI director this year and for overseeing the transition to new leadership so effectively,” Arvin said.

Casper was appointed to direct the institute for one year following the departure of Coit D. Blacker, who led FSI from 2003 to 2012 and oversaw significant growth in faculty appointments and research.

Casper, who chaired the search for a new director, said Cuéllar has a “profound understanding of institutions and policy issues, both nationally and internationally.”

“Stanford is very fortunate to have persuaded Tino to become director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies,” Casper said. “He will not only be an outstanding fiduciary of the institute, but with his considerable imagination, energy, and tenacity will develop collaborative and multidisciplinary approaches to problem-solving.”

Cuéllar – who did undergraduate work at Harvard, earned his law degree from Yale and received his PhD in political science at Stanford in 2000 – has had an extensive public service record since he began teaching at Stanford Law School in 2001.

Taking a leave of absence from Stanford during 2009 and 2010, he worked as special assistant to the president for justice and regulatory policy at the White House, where his responsibilities included justice and public safety, public health policy, borders and immigration, and regulatory reform.  Earlier, he co-chaired the presidential transition team responsible for immigration.

After returning to Stanford, he accepted a presidential appointment to the Council of the Administrative Conference of the United States, a nonpartisan agency charged with recommending improvements in the efficiency and fairness of federal regulatory programs.

Cuéllar also worked in the Treasury Department during the Clinton administration, focusing on fighting financial crime, improving border coordination and enhancing anti-corruption measures.

Since his appointment as co-director of CISAC, Cuéllar worked to expand the center’s agenda while continuing its strong focus on arms control, nuclear security and counterterrorism. During Cuéllar’s tenure, the center launched new projects on cybsersecurity, migration and refugees, as well as violence and governance in Latin America. CISAC also added six fellowships; recruited new faculty affiliates from engineering, medicine, and the social sciences; and forged ties with academic units across campus.

He said his focus as FSI’s director will be to strengthen the institute’s centers and programs and enhance its contributions to graduate education while fostering collaboration among faculty with varying academic backgrounds.

“FSI has much to contribute through its existing research centers and education programs,” he said. “But we will also need to forge new initiatives cutting across existing programs in order to understand more fully the complex risks and relationships shaping our world.”

In addition to Casper, the members of the search committee were Michael H. Armacost, Francis Fukuyama, Philip W. Halperin, David Holloway, Rosamond L. Naylor, Douglas K. Owens, and Elisabeth Paté-Cornell.

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Prisons of the former Soviet Union (FSU) have high rates of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) and are thought to drive general population tuberculosis (TB) epidemics. Effective prison case detection, though employing more expensive technologies, may reduce long-term treatment costs and slow MDR-TB transmission.

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PLoS Medicine
DE Winetsky
DM Negoescu
EH DeMarchis
O Almukhamedova
A Dooronbekova
D Pulatov
N Vezhnina
Douglas K. Owens
Douglas Owens
Jeremy Goldhaber-Fiebert
Jeremy Goldhaber-Fiebert

615 Crothers Way Encina Commons, MC6019
Stanford University
Stanford, CA 94305-6006

Adjunct Affiliate at the Center for Health Policy and the Department of Health Policy
Faculty Fellow, Stanford Center for Innovation in Global Health
Founder and CEO of TeachAids

Dr. Piya Sorcar is the founder and CEO of TeachAids, an Adjunct Affiliate at Stanford’s School of Medicine and a Faculty Fellow at the Stanford Center for Innovation in Global Health. She leads a team of world experts in medicine, public health, and education to address some of the most pressing public health challenges.

TeachAids is an award-winning 501(c)(3) nonprofit social venture that creates breakthrough software addressing numerous persistent problems in health education around the world, including HIV/AIDS, concussion, and COVID-19. A pioneer in the development of infectious disease education, TeachAids HIV education software is used in 82 countries. In partnership with the US Olympic Committee’s National Governing Bodies, TeachAids has launched the CrashCourse concussion education product suite, which includes research-based applications available online as a standard video and in virtual reality. CoviDB is their third health education initiative, a community-edited platform organizing resources across a comprehensive set of topics relating to COVID-19 for free public use.

Sorcar received her Ph.D. in Learning Sciences and Technology Design and her M.A. in Education from Stanford University. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Colorado at Boulder with a B.A. in Economics, B.S. in Journalism, and B.S. in Information Systems. She has been an invited speaker at leading universities such as Columbia, Johns Hopkins, Tsinghua, and Yale, and is on the Education Advisory Council for USA Football. MIT Technology Review named her to its TR35 list of the top 35 innovators in the world under 35 and she was the youngest recipient of Stanford’s Alumni Excellence in Education Award.

Selected Publications


Daneshvar DH, Yutsis M, Baugh CM, Pea RD, Goldman S, Grant GA, Ghajar J, Sanders LM, Chen C, Tenekedjieva LT, Gurrapu S, Zafonte RD, Sorcar P. Evaluating the effect of concussion education programs on intent to report concussion in high school football. Journal of athletic training. 2021 Jan 6.

Daneshvar DH, Baugh CM, Yutsis M, Pea RD, Goldman S, Grant GA, Cantu RC, Sanders LM, Chen CL, Lama RD, Zafonte RD, Sorcar P. Athlete enjoyment of prior education moderates change in concussion-reporting intention after interactive education. INQUIRY: The Journal of Health Care Organization, Provision, and Financing. 2021 May;58:00469580211022641.

Daneshvar DH, Baugh CM, Lama RD, Yutsis M, Pea RD, Goldman S, Grant GA, Cantu RC, Sanders LM, Zafonte RD, Hainline B, Sorcar P. Participating in two video concussion education programs sequentially improves concussion-reporting intention. Neurotrauma reports. 2021 Dec 1;2(1):581-91.

Strauber B., Sorcar P., Howlett C., Goldman S. Using a picture-embedded method to support acquisition of sight words. Learning and Instruction. Volume 65, February 2020.

Sorcar P., Strauber B., Loyalka P., Kumar N., Goldman S. Sidestepping the Elephant in the Classroom: Using Culturally Appropriate Software To Teach Around Taboos. Proceedings of the 2017 ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI '17). ACM, New York, NY, USA. Best Paper Honorable Mention.

Sorcar P., Nass C., “Teaching Taboo Topics Through Technology”. Book Chapter in Handbook of Research on Digital Media and Advertising: User Generated Content Consumption. 393-435. 2011.

Sorcar P., “National ‘TeachAIDS Day’ in Botswana”. Article, Huffington Post, June 18, 2012.

Sorcar P., “A New Approach to Global HIV/AIDS Education”. Article, Huffington Post, December 1, 2010.

Sorcar P., “Teaching Taboo Topics Without Talking About Them:  An Epistemic Study Of A New Approach To HIV/AIDS Prevention Education in India” Doctoral Dissertation, Stanford University, 2009.

Adam Gorlick
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Retraction: In June 2012, Stanford researchers Rajaie Batniji and Eran Bendavid retracted the research findings explained in the following article. Their findings, presented in the essay, "Does development assistance for health really displace government health spending? Reassessing the evidence," contained errors in statistical model choice and reporting. The essay was published May 8, 2012, by the journal PLoS Medicine. The researchers erroneously concluded that there was no significant displacement of foreign aid. When they discovered their mistake, they informed editors at PLoS Medicine and moved to correct the record. The editors agreed with the need for the retraction and accepted the authors’ explanation of their error. The retraction can be read at

When a 2010 study concluded that about half the money given to international governments for providing health care services isn’t used as intended, skeptics who argued that foreign aid is largely wasted were handed a powerful piece of data to bolster their claims.

But Stanford researchers Rajaie S. Batniji and Eran Bendavid say those findings are flawed. In an article featured in the May 8th edition of PLoS Medicine, Batniji and Bendavid say the two-year-old study by researchers at the University of Washington should not be used to guide decisions about how much money to give and who should get it.

“We can’t say that there’s absolutely no displacement of foreign aid, but these earlier findings are too tenuous for the basis of policy,” said Batniji, an affiliate of the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

Batniji and Bendavid, an affiliate of FSI’s Stanford Health Policy and an assistant professor of medicine, are taking on the 2010 study – which appeared in the Lancet – at a critical time for foreign assistance programs.

The United States, which gives about half of all the world’s health aid, plans to chop its $10 billion budget by about 4 percent in the coming fiscal year. That’s the first cut in more than a decade. And officials have shown no signs of switching their preference of bypassing national governments as recipients of health aid, funneling more than half of U.S. support to non-governmental organizations instead.

Batniji and Bendavid decided to re-analyze the data used by the University of Washington researchers after meeting with policymakers who pointed to the study as a cautionary tale of foreign governments that waste and mismanage money earmarked for health programs.

“People were citing the Lancet piece, saying this was starting to shape how they thought about giving money,” said Batniji, who is also a resident physician at Stanford Medical Center. “But when we started asking questions about what the actual displacement looks like, the answers didn’t seem very compelling or reasonable.”

Taking a fresh look at the same numbers used for the 2010 study – public financing data culled from the World Health Organization and the International Monetary Fund – the researchers saw a different story emerge about the use of foreign aid in the health sector.

Once Batniji and Bendavid excluded conflicting and outlying data, such as huge discrepancies between WHO and IMF estimates and information about countries that were getting very small amounts of money from other countries, “there was no significant displacement of foreign aid,” Bendavid said.

The Stanford researchers’ findings are poised to influence a debate among policymakers and donors over whether it’s more efficient to give international assistance slated for health spending to government agencies or NGOs.

“We want to free donors of feeling that if they give money directly to governments, the money will be offset and used for an unintended purpose,” Batniji said. “The concern about displacement really amplifies the demands we make on governments for how they use the money. And that is at odds with a recent movement to let foreign governments set their own agendas for how to spend money.”

The research conducted by Batniji and Bendavid was supported by FSI’s Global Underdevelopment Action Fund and the Dr. George Rosenkranz Prize awarded to Bendavid in 2010.

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Adam Gorlick
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Philanthropist and software giant Bill Gates spoke to a Stanford audience last week about the importance of foreign aid and product innovation in the fight against chronic hunger, poverty and disease in the developing world.

His message goes hand-in-hand with the ongoing work of researchers at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. Much of that work is supported by FSI’s Global Underdevelopment Action Fund, which provides seed grants to help faculty members design research experiments and conduct fieldwork in some of the world’s poorest places.

Four FSI senior fellows – Larry Diamond, Jeremy Weinstein, Paul Wise and Walter Falcon – respond to some of the points made by Gates and share insight into their own research and ideas about how to advance and secure the most fragile nations.

Without first improving people’s health, Gates says it’s harder to build good governance and reliable infrastructure in a developing country. Is that the best way to prioritize when thinking about foreign aid?

Larry Diamond: I have immense admiration for what Bill Gates is doing to reduce childhood and maternal fatality and improve the quality of life in poor countries.  He is literally saving millions of lives.  But in two respects (at least), it's misguided to think that public health should come "before" improvements in governance.  

First, there is no reason why we need to choose, or why the two types of interventions should be in conflict.  People need vaccines against endemic and preventable diseases – and they need institutional reforms to strengthen societal resistance to corruption, a sociopolitical disease that drains society of the energy and resources to fight poverty, ignorance, and disease.  

Second, good governance is a vital facilitator of improved public health.  When corruption is controlled, public resources are used efficiently and justly to build modern sanitation and transportation systems, and to train and operate modern health care systems.  With good, accountable governance, public health and life expectancy improve much more dramatically.  When corruption is endemic, life-saving vaccines, drugs, and treatments too often fall beyond the reach of poor people who cannot make under-the-table payments. 

Foreign aid has come under criticism for not being effective, and most countries have very small foreign aid budgets. How do you make the case that foreign aid is a worthy investment?

Jeremy M. Weinstein: While foreign aid may be a small part of most countries’ national budgets, global development assistance has increased markedly in the past 50 years. Between 2000 and 2010, global aid increased from $78 billion to nearly $130 billion – and the U.S. continues to be the world’s leading donor.

The challenge in the next decade will be to sustain high aid volumes given the economic challenges that now confront developed countries. I am confident that we can and will sustain these volumes for three reasons.

First, a strong core of leading voices in both parties recognizes that promoting development serves our national interest. In this interconnected world, our security and prosperity depend in important ways on the security and prosperity of those who live beyond our borders.

Second, providing assistance is a reflection of our values – it is these humanitarian motives that drove the unprecedented U.S. commitment to fighting HIV/AIDS during the Bush Administration.

Perhaps most importantly, especially in tight budget times, development agencies are learning a great deal about what works in foreign assistance, and are putting taxpayers’ dollars to better use to reduce poverty, fight disease, increase productivity, and strengthen governance – with increasing evidence to show for it.

Some of the most dire situations in the developing world are found in conflict zones. How can philanthropists and nongovernmental organizations best work in places with unstable governments and public health crises? Is there a role for larger groups like the Gates Foundation to play in war-torn areas?

Paul H. Wise: As a pediatrician, the central challenge is this: The majority of preventable child deaths in Sub-Saharan Africa and in much of the world occur in areas of political instability and poor governance. 

This means that if we are to make real progress in improving child health we must be able to enhance the provision of critical, highly efficacious health interventions in areas that are characterized by complex political environments – often where corruption, civil conflict, and poor public management are the rule. 

Currently, most of the major global health funders tend to avoid working in such areas, as they would rather invest their efforts and resources in supportive, well-functioning locations.  This is understandable. However, given where the preventable deaths are occurring, it is not acceptable. 

Our efforts are directed at creating new strategies capable of bringing essential services to unstable regions of the world.  This will require new collaborations between health professionals, global security experts, political scientists, and management specialists in order to craft integrated child health strategies that respect both the technical requirements of critical health services and the political and management innovations that will ensure that these life-saving interventions reach all children in need.

Gates says innovation is essential to improving agricultural production for small farmers in the poorest places. What is the most-needed invention or idea that needs to be put into place to fight global hunger?

Walter P. Falcon: No single innovation will end hunger, but widespread use of cell phone technology could help.

Most poor agricultural communities receive few benefits from agricultural extension services, many of which were decimated during earlier periods of structural reform. But small farmers often have cell phones or live in villages where phones are present.

My priority innovation is for a  $10 smart phone, to be complemented with a series of very specific applications designed for transferring knowledge about new agricultural technologies to particular regions.  Using the wiki-like potential of these applications, it would also be possible for farmers from different villages to teach each other, share critical local knowledge, and also interact with crop and livestock specialists.

Language and visual qualities of the applications would be key, and literacy problems would be constraining.  But the potential payoff seems enormous.

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The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) establishes and maintains refugee camps to meet the needs of 34.5 million people affected by disaster or war worldwide. Like other international humanitarian organizations, UNHCR maintains central stockpiles which supply these refugee operations. Management at UNHCR seeks to improve the timeliness and quality of its disaster response subject to its budget constraints. We develop an inventory model to analyze the interaction between a stockpile and a downstream refugee camp or relief operation. We consider two inventory decisions: first, how to partition a fixed budget between stockpiling and shipping costs in order to best meet the needs of beneficiaries; and second, given the shipping budget determined by the budget partition, how to ship relief items from the stockpile to a downstream relief operation in an efficient manner. We solve for the shipment policy using dynamic programming, then determine the optimal stockpile size given knowledge of the optimal shipment policy. The optimization balances a key tradeoff: a larger stockpile is costly to procure and maintain, but enhances a humanitarian organization’s ability to respond to relief operation demands. We provide insights into shipment strategies and stockpile size. We also develop a spreadsheet model to help humanitarian organizations in their operational decision-making, leading to improved response to beneficiaries. Humanitarian organizations must use their financial resources wisely to carry out their mandates, and models of this type can help them make the best use of their limited response resources.
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Journal Articles
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OR Spectrum
McCoy, J. H.
Margaret L. Brandeau
Margaret Brandeau
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