Skip to main content

Volume 15 Supplement 3

User Fee Exemption Policies

Public policies and health systems in Sahelian Africa: theoretical context and empirical specificity


This research on user fee removal in three African countries is located at the interface of public policy analysis and health systems research. Public policy analysis has gradually become a vast and multifaceted area of research consisting of a number of perspectives. But the context of public policies in Sahelian Africa has some specific characteristics. They are largely shaped by international institutions and development agencies, on the basis of very common 'one-size-fits-all' models; the practical norms that govern the actual behaviour of employees are far removed from official norms; public goods and services are co-delivered by a string of different actors and institutions, with little coordination between them; the State is widely regarded by the majority of citizens as untrustworthy. In such a context, setting up and implementing health user fee exemptions in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger was beset by major problems, lack of coherence and bottlenecks that affect public policy-making and implementation in these countries.

Health systems research for its part started to gain momentum less than twenty years ago and is becoming a discipline in its own right. But French-speaking African countries scarcely feature in it, and social sciences are not yet fully integrated. This special issue wants to fill the gap. In the Sahel, the bad health indicators reflect a combination of converging factors: lack of health centres, skilled staff, and resources; bad quality of care delivery, corruption, mismanagement; absence of any social security or meaningful commitment to the worst-off; growing competition from drug peddlers on one side, from private clinics on the other. Most reforms of the health system have various 'blind spots'. They do not take in account the daily reality of its functioning, its actual governance, the implicit rationales of the actors involved, and the quality of healthcare provision. In order to document the numerous neglected problems of the health system, a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods is needed to produce evidence.


The empirical basis of our research is provided by Sahelian Africa, with the focus on a specific type of health policy (the recent wave of user fee exemptions in Africa). The main findings have already been published in French [1] and in English [2]. They are summarised in the present Introduction (Olivier de Sardan & Ridde, this issue). The literature on the switch from cost recovery to user fee exemptions is discussed in Ridde (this issue).

However our interpretative framework is much broader. This contribution presents the theoretical context of this special issue, which is located at the interface of two major research areas that have developed on an international scale over the last 30 years: public policy analysis and the study of health systems. They are now often combined under the same heading: Health Policy and System Research (HPSR).

While health systems have received increasing attention in recent years, health policies are still very much neglected, particularly in Africa. As Gilson & Raphaely put it: "Health policy analysis in LMICs clearly remains in its infancy" [3]. Our research is an attempt to fill this gap. But this means taking not only health policy studies, but also, more generally, public policies studies into account.

Thus, in this paper we provide a summary of the theoretical setting concerning, first, public policy literature and, second, health system literature, in order to answer the same two questions for each area: (a) What kind of research is being undertaken at international level and where does our own research stand in relation to it? (b) To what extent is the situation in Africa peculiar to that continent and what are the implications for our research?

One thing should be made clear from the outset: any feature of public policy-making and health systems in Sahelian Africa (and, in our own experience, in West Africa generally) could also be found in some way or another in Europe and North America, but in different proportions and with different styles. Bureaucracy in the health system is a case in point. Nurses in African health centres complain (mostly with good reason) about the huge number of reports and other documents they have to complete on a daily basis and at the end of every month. But in her analysis of bureaucracy in a French hospital, Béatrice Hibou describes how a Parisian nurse also rails against these very ills, having to complete mounds of forms - which are often irrelevant to her work and useful only to managers - before she can even start her clinical work [4]. There is a need for comparative analyses of African and European bureaucracy, a fact which justifies the application of the same research perspectives to both the southern and northern hemispheres [5]. However, it does not mean that contexts are the same - on the contrary.

For example, there is evidence that the behaviour of health professionals diverges from official norms everywhere, but the extent, frequency and nature of these divergences vary considerably, depending on the context. At the present time, they are often more significant in Niger or Mali than in Sweden or Germany. In principle, the aim of every public policy is coherence and effectiveness. In no country in the world is this aim achieved completely, but incoherence, implementation gap and policy failure are often greater in Sahelian Africa than in Europe, as the whole Africanist literature in political science shows, whatever the interpretations - often contradictory - provided for this phenomena. Every health system is composed of interdependent, regulated elements. Each one of them has bottlenecks and contradictions, but these are often more common and more severe in Sahelian Africa than in North America, even if the health systems of Canada and the United States are far from perfect.

Public policies

Public policy research

Public policy analysis has gradually become a vast and multifaceted area of research in its own right, consisting of a number of perspectives and even paradigms, on which we have drawn to varying degrees. Eight of these are presented below (there are other dimensions to public policy research, relating, in particular, to vested interests or the institutions involved, that we cannot take in account here). These perspectives are in no way incompatible, they frequently overlap, and are often mixed (as we did).

1. Sequences

The best known is probably sequential analysis (deLeon's stages heuristic) with its discrete phases, which have become a standard feature of the 'public policy process': agenda-setting, policy formulation, legitimation, implementation, and evaluation [6]. Having been criticized for its linear approach [7], sequential analysis has become more sophisticated and dialectical, taking account of the 'garbage can' model [8] and of interactions between 'stages' and between 'streams' [9] and adopting a standpoint more focused on process and dynamics [10, 11]. It continues to underpin numerous studies [12]. Kingdon's policy streams framework is often used in the area of health [13]. For our part, we made a basic, two-part distinction: (a) the shaping of policies, in other words agenda-setting, decision-making, legitimation and formulation (one of the paradoxes of free healthcare policies, especially in the case of Mali and Niger, is that legitimation has preceded formulation, in contrast to the usual order of these stages, which means that a wider perspective has to be adopted); and (b) their implementation. As for the analysis of outcomes, this can be included under implementation or else dealt with separately.

2. Agenda-setting and decision-making

The emergence of a problem as a 'public problem' and the ways in which it is incorporated into a political agenda have generated a great deal of literature [14]. We have documented how the free healthcare paradigm, which, in terms of public health, had assumed increasing prominence on the world stage after being ignored for a long time [15], has suddenly been adopted by heads of African states [2] (Ridde, this issue).

3. Implementation

The 'implementation' of policies has long been the point of entry to a specific research current that is particularly relevant here. Since Pressman & Wildavsky's famous book [16], and to some extent before it [17], 'implementation studies' have focused in different ways on the 'implementation gap', in other words on the disparity between public policies as decided, developed and organized (their aims and architecture) and what actually happens on the ground (the facts surrounding their implementation, and how they are appropriated/misappropriated/transformed/dismantled in practice). This approach has its origins in the political and administrative sciences, and is still largely concerned with the northern hemisphere [3, 17]. Following an initial phase dominated by 'top-down' perspectives, it became more sensitive to the entanglement of many logics and various stakeholders, including users and frontline bureaucrats, feedback, and informal process of negotiation and bargaining [1821]. However, in our view, it neglected a methodological tradition of intensive fieldwork, especially in Africa, for the in-depth investigation of such issues. The new anthropology of development filled this gap over the course of the 1980s, when it adopted the implementation approach in relation with Africa and aid policies [21, 22], giving it a more detailed and robust empirical content by analysing the interactions between 'developees' and 'developers', and the 'drifts' and unexpected outcomes of development projects. It did so by exploiting the methods of ethnography (qualitative fieldwork), which also play a prominent part in our own study. Moreover, both the approach and the method have since been used by the anthropology of the State and of public action in Africa [5] which is a contemporary widening of the anthropology of development (including health services provided by the State), and a domain in which a number of our own researchers work.

It will be seen below just how important this implementation gap is in relation to free healthcare policies in the three West African countries investigated. This has been the main thrust of our research. Various studies have analysed these considerable divergences between official policies and actual practice in other health sectors [2325]. However, it should not be forgotten that the situation is not confined to health. A similar gulf can be found in virtually all public policies in these countries, regardless of the sector. All recent research undertaken within an ethnographical framework on justice [26, 27], education [28, 29] and decentralization [3032] in Africa bears witness to the fact.

4. Frames of reference

Other public policy research has chosen to focus on 'frames of reference' (référentiels in French) for these policies, in other words on the discursive, ideological and representational mechanisms that underpin the design and agenda-setting stages of these policies, allowing them to be thought out and articulated, and either explicitly or implicitly legitimizing [3335]. We have paid some attention to this issue ourselves regarding the emergence and formulation of recent user fee exemptions [2] (cf. also Ridde, this issue). A peculiarity of public policies in French-speaking West Africa is that their frames of reference are developed in the main by experts from the northern hemisphere within a 'developmental perspective' [22]. This was true of cost recovery (Bamako Initiative) in the 1980s, introduced by UNICEF and WHO, and, from the first years of the 21st century, partly true for fee exemptions and for universal health coverage, which were debated by international NGOs (and subsequently by cooperation agencies, especially the DFID - the department responsible for British cooperation) after they had gradually developed campaigns in these areas, which have gathered momentum over the years and are now supported by all international institutions. For its own internal reasons, South Africa, on the other hand, introduced free healthcare as early as 1994. Moreover, the fact that the framework of reference is external does not preclude decisions being taken for internal policy reasons, as it is apparent in the case of user fee exemptions.

5. Instruments

The analysis of public policies 'through their instruments' has also been developed recently [36, 37], from a number of angles. The term 'instrument' can have different meanings. Howlett [38], for example, uses it in a very broad sense. The restricted sense we adopt here relates to the technical support that has been developed for a given policy to run smoothly: 'material' or bureaucratic tools [39], or formal procedures (such as the 'logical framework') [40]. We have paid particular attention to the 'paperwork' of free healthcare (record cards, ledgers, notebooks), as well as the complicated paths taken by 'free care' invoices between services and ministries.

6. Actors

Public policies can also be approached through their actors: decision-makers, experts, bureaucrats, technicians, field agents, paramedics, brokers, users and community representatives. Lipsky's book on 'street-level bureaucrats' [41] is a seminal contribution to this approach. An entire literature in sociology or the anthropology of professions could be referred to, in which the medical professions, in particular, feature prominently, the main point of reference being Freidson [42]. Some of them have been studied in an African context [43, 44]. The approach via actors could also be compared to the approach via 'stakeholders' (stakeholder analysis) or via 'strategic groups' [45], which then link up with the different interests involved in public policy-making. Our own research was, of course, conducted among all health professionals associated with exemption, first and foremost those engaged in clinical work: nurses (who are usually the front-line carers), midwives, doctors and surgeons; but we have also focussed our attention on support staff (traditional birth attendants, ward assistants, carers, paramedics and managers), as well as supervisory staff (district management teams, regional boards) and civil servants in the health ministries. However, we did not favour a particular entry point nor did we target a specific profession. Naturally, we also interviewed many actors outside the health profession, such as the members of management committees and users.

7. Inequalities

Various projects on public policy are concerned with the relationship between the policies and the inequalities that characterize the societies in which they are implemented, whether from a neo-Marxist perspective [46] or with a special emphasis on exclusion, inequities and vulnerability [47]. How do public policies reproduce or exacerbate social divisions, or, on the contrary, reduce or cushion their effects? The policy of cost recovery in health facilities has been criticized for developing inequalities and excluding the most vulnerable [15, 48]. Fee exemptions, whether in relation to specific illnesses whose costs cannot be borne by the poorest (tuberculosis, HIV-AIDS) or in favour of categories regarded as especially vulnerable (pregnant women and children) are, of course, at the centre of such questions. They immediately become located within 'social' strategies focused on access to healthcare by the poor, in which the challenges of the political economics of targeting come to the fore [49]. Part of our research has consisted in assessing whether visits to health clinics by vulnerable groups (the bottom quintile in the classification of population based on income) have been made any easier by free healthcare policies [50].

8. Deliberative process

Finally, an analysis of the deliberative processes relating to public policies is another approach we have used. It includes public debates, discussions by experts, conferences, general assemblies, citizens' juries, media coverage, polls, etc. (in the area of health, cf. Boyco et al.) [51]. We monitored and analysed the national conferences on free healthcare organized in Mali and Niger [52] and, in tandem with this, read through and analysed all the newspaper articles on the subject in both countries [53]. In this issue (Olivier de Sardan), we describe some difficulties encountered in Mali and Niger with health officials concerning the diffusion of our results.

The specific character of public policies in the Sahel

In terms of public policies, the general situation is much the same in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, not only in the health sector but in other areas too. The same shortfall in tax revenues makes them dependent on development aid (between 30 and 50 per cent of national budgets comes from foreign funding). Hence, the main public policies are shaped largely by international institutions and development agencies: as a result, they are very similar from country to country, the transfer of 'one-size-fits-all' and 'blue-print' policies becoming ever more common at the expense of their fitness for complex local realities [54, 55]. The structural adjustment programmes of the 1980s seriously weakened public services and administrations; corruption has become widespread and public employees are often demotivated. The practical norms and professional cultures [56] that govern the actual behaviour of employees are far removed from official norms. On the ground, public goods and services are co-delivered by a string of different actors and institutions, with little coordination between them, the co-delivery itself pointing to distinct local forms of governance [57, 58]. The State is widely regarded by the majority of citizens as untrustworthy, thus making populations sceptical about the ability of States to ensure the sustainability of any policy for which funding is not guaranteed by international donors. Thus, the data from Afrobarometer 2008/9 surveys conducted in 20 countries show that citizens of countries in Francophone West Africa (that is, Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin and Senegal) are the harshest judges of their governments with regard to their ability to provide health services [59]. The capacity of the national health system to reproduce the pilot projects of NGOs concerning free healthcare have likewise met with a great deal of scepticism [60, 61] (cf. also Olivier de Sardan et al. in this issue).

The process of setting up and implementing user fee exemptions in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger was beset by all the major problems that generally affect public policy-making in these countries. Based on our results, they can be summed up as follows:

  • decisions taken suddenly and without proper preparation, partly under international pressure or persuasion but incorporating internal political preoccupations.

  • no coordination between technical and financial partners, who are often ignorant of local conditions, sometimes absent from the scene in areas where their input is likely to be vital, and not accountable for the consequences of the measures they recommend.

  • an architecture hastily developed and put in place by national technical experts from central government, often wrong-footed by the decisions of politicians;

  • a failure to plan realistically, with no evaluation of a pilot stage (or without taking evaluations into account when they do exist), making it difficult to anticipate problems.

  • late and insufficient information provided for the categories involved (health staff, health committees, local authorities and users).

  • staff responsible for applying the new policies who are often opposed to them or in any case demotivated.

  • a lack of coherence in applying them, and ad hoc measures that are ill-defined, inadequate and piecemeal and are added to existing arrangements without any attempt at harmonization.

  • a lack of reliable monitoring, feedback and reporting of information about the problems encountered.

  • the absence of any research infrastructure for evaluating and supporting public policies, and a failure to take account of research data in the implementation of policies.

  • a tendency to recentralize decisions and funds when the decentralization process has only just begun.

If anyone needs convincing that health is far from being the only sector in which these conditions prevail, we might take two examples, one from a country featuring in our study, the other from a Central African country.

In Niger, decentralization came in 2004, amid pressure from two quarters, externally, from donors, and internally, from the Tuareg rebellion. However, the State has failed to honour practically any of the promises it had made to local government for years. For many years, it has not even passed on to them the taxes raised on their behalf. State officials (governors, prefects and technical services) have sought to use the municipalities to their own advantage, at the same time impeding the delegation of authority. The powers in health matters officially handed down to the municipalities have received neither financial nor technical support, and have therefore remained a dead letter.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is an extreme case, but an instructive one. An exemption policy has also been introduced there, but in the education sector, where the payment of school fees by parents had become the chief source of funding, throughout the school hierarchy. In contrast to the cost-recovery scheme for health, which was put in place in the 1980s and under which user fees are retained by the health centres (and used to buy medicines, pay the wages of a carer and a manager, and help with the running costs), only a small proportion of school fees are used at school level in the Congo, the rest being distributed along an ascending pathway that ends at the ministry itself. Under pressure from donors, the government suddenly decided to abolish these school fees without first preparing the ground, setting up the budgeting requirements or informing the teachers and parents. Accordingly, the corresponding practices did not disappear [62].

Clearly, this is not to claim that public policies are identical throughout Africa, regardless of sectors and countries. Instead, they share a 'family resemblance', in other words certain common or similar structural features, which are typical of an identical 'bureaucratic style of governance' and which no doubt relate to least two important political and institutional variables common to almost all African countries: (a) a colonial past, which was also the construction stage of a modern state apparatus of a very particular kind, an apparatus that remained in place after independence; (b) the key role later played by development aid and the rentier setting that it generates [63, 64].

However, beyond this 'family resemblance', public policies take on a different complexion, depending on the domains and the national contexts with which they are connected. Moreover, as we have noted, a number of significant differences exist between the exemption policies pursued in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, respectively.

Health systems

Health systems research

Although speeches on global health increasingly refer to health systems [65], research into health systems was relatively neglected by public health researchers for a long time, especially in French-speaking West Africa, where "The potential usefulness of research explicitly focused on health systems is under-rated" [66]. In 2000, a survey of the biggest database in the area of health (Medline) showed that only 0.7% of articles were related to research on health systems, with less than 5% of these dealing with countries in the Southern hemisphere. For a long time, the main preoccupation was with epidemiological studies on the description of diseases, their distribution in the population and how well their etiology was understood. In Africa, this corresponded with an expansion of vertical programmes for fighting diseases. Until very recently, therefore, an exclusive reliance on statistics and a lack of awareness of qualitative methods were the norm. Whenever health systems were studied, they were not analysed from a holistic perspective; instead, studies tended to concentrate on a specific aspect, such as care delivery or funding. Even in the area of funding, for example, studies undertaken in Africa were fragmented, with some homing in on revenue collection (direct payment or the willingness/ability to pay) and others on the procurement mechanisms of services taken in isolation. Research was focused more on health services than on health systems proper, viewed in their entirety. Anthropologists were called on to study only the so-called 'cultural' aspects of health, and economists to study only the cost-effectiveness of interventions.

Health systems research started to gain momentum in the early years of the twenty-first century. WHO's annual report for the year 2000 is one of the cornerstones of this shift in focus (followed by the 2008 report on primary healthcare). This report by WHO suggested ranking the world's health systems by performance, placing, for example, the countries covered by our research at the bottom of the table and France at the top. The use of quantitative indicators, which remains the basis for this type of comparative approach [67], and results in league tables, is often challenged [68]. However, WHO also declared that the aims of a health system are to meet a population's expectations (the concept of responsiveness) and to organize a fair financial contribution (hence taking into account people's ability to pay) in order to improve the health of the population, although insufficient emphasis was placed on social inequality in health matters in Africa and elsewhere [69]. Finally, WHO proposed an analytical framework for the strengthening of health systems, built around six essential functions (or 'building blocks'), which were initially four (and sometimes become eight): 1) health service provision; 2) health personnel; 3) health information; 4) medicines and vaccines; 5) the funding of the health system; and 6) governance and leadership [70]. In some countries, this framework has even become a dogma, which does not favour innovative, transverse or systemic analyses [71].

Various reforms of health systems also rely on this framework. But there is still too little research on the changes that these multiple and endless reforms engender in relation to the overall performance of health systems, and one might be forgiven for thinking that there is a distinct tendency for them to be guided more by ideology than by scientific evidence [4, 72].

Today, however, health policy and systems research (HSPR) is becoming a discipline in its own right and is increasingly tapping into other disciplines (the administrative and management sciences, political sciences, anthropology, etc.). The first academic organisation dedicated to health systems research (Health Systems Global) was established in 2012, in the wake of two international conferences organized in 2010 (Montreux) and 2012 (Beijing), at which our research programme was represented. This trend is, of course, part of the bigger picture of the work done by the Alliance for Health Policy and Systems Research over the years.

However, two problems with HPSR, which our research attempted to tackle, should be mentioned here:

  • first, there is still a "tendency to under-value contributions to HPSR from social sciences" [73]

  • second, for a number of reasons, French-speaking African countries scarcely feature in it at all: few researchers, the majority of whom are not fluent in English; competition from consultation; and domination by a French research tradition in public health that is very medicine-orientated and epidemiological and not at all conducive to the emergence of interdisciplinary issues relating to policy and health systems (for example, at the Beijing (2012) and the Cape town (2014) world conferences on HPRS there were virtually no researchers from French institutions).

As a way of structuring this field, but also of increasing its visibility, field-specific journals have appeared in recent years (e.g. BMC Health Services Research), as well as a variety of overview articles [73, 74] and a reader presenting a selection of texts on health systems and offering a definition of the field [75]: "Health policy and systems research is defined as a field that seeks to understand and improve how societies organize themselves in achieving collective health goals and how different actors interact in the policy and implementation processes deployed to contribute to policy outcomes. By nature, it is interdisciplinary, a blend of economics, sociology, anthropology, political science, public health and epidemiology that together draw a comprehensive picture of how health systems respond and adapt to health policies, and how health policies can shape - and be shaped by - health systems and the broader determinants of health." [75]. It is interesting to note that this definition is very broad and links together - fortunately - health policy research (see above) and health systems research. The majority of these studies attempt to show that researchers need to move beyond traditional paradigm boundaries and marshal other theoretical concepts and approaches (for example critical realism [76] or realist constructivism' [77]) to gain a better understanding of complexity of health systems and the contexts in which they are implemented, and to exploit the complementarity of quantitative and qualitative methods from a mixed methods perspective. This is what we have tried to do in this research programme (see Ridde & Olivier de Sardan in this issue).

In a recent publication, WHO gives every indication of wanting to play an active part in driving forward health systems research [78]. It also appears, more generally, that actors in this field are particularly concerned about the use of outcomes and about how the gap between researchers and those responsible for health systems reform can be narrowed [79]. Our own work in French-speaking Africa belongs to this perspective [1, 80].

The peculiarities of health systems in the Sahel

Although there has been a steady fall in mortality rates over the years in the three countries under consideration, especially as far as children are concerned, quantitative indicators for health remain very unsatisfactory and will not enable the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) to be attained by 2015 (cf. Ridde, this issue). This situation reflects a combination of four sets of converging factors.

1. Health centres are still far too few in number (problem of geographical accessibility) and remain poorly attended by patients; there are not enough skilled staff in rural areas, especially outlying areas; and the health system suffers from a chronic shortage of financial and material resources: the health budget is small and falls well short of international commitments (Abuja Declaration), the health centres are under-equipped, and small items of equipment, medicines and inputs are often in short supply.

2. The quality of care provided leaves much to be desired: contempt for the anonymous user, the extortion of money from patients, a lack of professional conscience, absenteeism, mismanagement of human resources, numerous shortcomings in managing inputs and stocks. These problems are regularly reported by users [23] and the press, but NGOs, international institutions and local politicians remain obstinately silent on the matter in the local arena.

3. In the absence of any social security or meaningful commitment to the worst-off (the official mechanisms for helping the destitute do not work very well, if they work at all), the low standard of living of the vast majority of the population soon transforms any spending on health (such as obstetric care) into 'catastrophic expenditure' (putting the economic viability of households at risk).

4. In all three countries, the public health system currently faces growing competition from two very distinctive types of modern private healthcare channels (apart from 'traditional' or, more often, 'neo-traditional' healthcare, either in the form of self-treatment or of the services of a variety of specialist 'healers', who are not necessarily any cheaper). For most people, both in the countryside and in towns, it is the 'informal pharmacies' ('pharmacies par terre'), in other words, informal vendors (peddlers or market stalls), who supply consumers with the majority of modern medicines. These are usually sold individually, without any kind of quality control and often smuggled into the country [81, 82]. In urban areas and among the better-off, private clinics attract the more affluent clients.

In response to this situation, reforms of the health systems have become a regular phenomenon in Africa over the last 30 years. These have consisted of the promotion of primary healthcare, cost recovery, community participation (a resurgence of which is in evidence today), the establishment of districts and the health pyramid, hospital reform, the creation of mutual insurance companies, user fee exemptions, and, more recently, performance-based financing. To these should be added the innumerable and unending sector-based and vertical mini-reforms that constantly modify the organization of work: for example, there has been an explosion of healthcare programmes in the last 15 years in the area of mother-and-child health alone: emergency obstetric and neonatal care, essential newborn care, active management of the third stage of labour, refocused antenatal consultations, prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV-AIDS, clinic- and community-based integrated management of childhood illness, key family practices programme, rapid diagnostic tests for malaria, etc.

All of these mini-reforms are, in reality, mini-public-policies, on various scales. They correspond to what Hardee et al. [83] have called "operational policies", which are referred to as "programs" by other authors [84, 85]. Indeed, every new public policy is presented as a reform of the policies in place. All of them are aimed at improving the current health system, at making it more effective and more efficient, and at providing a better service. Most of them are designed by experts from the North in the form of standard procedures to be implemented in many African countries. And yet, ironically, most of them do not start from a thorough diagnosis of the health system as it really is and actually works: the daily interactions between health workers and the population and the routine functioning of health services, which is often far removed from official norms and organizational charts.

In other words, most reforms and mini-reforms are based on the fiction that the health system in place in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger is the official one and that health workers comply routinely to professional rules. The same thing happened in the case of fee exemptions.

Sadly, however, the reality is completely different. Users all complain about the way they are treated by health staff, about the corruption that is rife in health centres and about the fact that the care they receive is rushed and of poor quality. Low-level staff, who do the bulk of the work, bemoan the lack of equipment and shortages of supplies, the appropriation of bonuses and other benefits by those above them in the hierarchy, absenteeism among doctors, and even wheeling and dealing by some of them. Doctors fail to discipline staff who are found to be at fault, they fail to get midwives posted to outlying areas or to carry out checks on the quality of care, and are even more remiss in monitoring the application of the innumerable micro-reforms. Each of these micro-reforms is usually preceded by a short period of 'training': the health staff who attend are supposed to practise what they have learnt and disseminate it to their work colleagues. This rarely happens in reality.

Hence, the epidemiological studies and public health analyses undertaken in African countries have various 'blind spots'. In other words, apart from a few exceptions, a number of serious 'problems' in the day-to-day workings of health systems are hardly debated or 'brought out into the open', either because they are not picked up by the usual investigation protocols or because they have become firmly entrenched routines, or even because they challenge vested interests. And yet, many of the failures that bedevil health programmes are attributable precisely to these factors, which generally relate to the 'real practices' of health staff (which often diverge from official norms), the ways in which care is actually organized (with all their contradictions, inadequacies and inconsistencies), how health policies (often inconsistent themselves) are implemented on the ground (with significant discrepancies between intention and execution, and the use of extensive scope for manoeuvre by frontline workers).


New field research needs to be done on these 'neglected problems', which concern the actual governance of health systems, the implicit rationales of the actors involved, and the quality (real or perceived) of healthcare provision. Posting and transfer (which are in reality very far removed from official regulations and optimal use of workforce) is an example of such "challenges that are all but ignored in the health literature" [86]. LASDEL ( is currently engaged in a research programme on 'Neglected problems of Niger health systems', which deals with six topics: supervision, midwives, medical records, induced abortions, what happens after the departure of medical NGOs, and the role of the municipalities in health matters. All these topics only appear in official documents in the form of slogans or instructions, and very rarely as complex issues needing to be documented. 'Evidence-based medicine', which is so fashionable nowadays, including in the area of public policies on health ('evidence-based policy'), seems only to regard what comes out of epidemiological investigations as 'evidence'. However, only finely tuned qualitative investigations are able to capture these neglected problems: these are a necessary complement to the work of a quantitative nature if the intention is to research into health systems in terms of their daily operations on the ground (cf. Ridde & Olivier de Sardan in this issue). It is precisely for this reason that we combined both types of investigation.

The first step towards indispensable reforms is to highlight the neglected problems faced by health systems and to document them. The fact is that, unless these problems are diagnosed - and most of the time they are not even mentioned publicly in national and international decision-making circles or in the field of epidemiology and public health - the implementation of health policies will continue to miss their intended targets by a wide margin, with a multitude of unintended and undesirable consequences. In the context of user fee exemptions the examples of these consequences are numerous [1] (see also the following articles by Touré and by Diarra/Ousseni in this issue).



United Kingdom Department for International Development


Health Policy and Systems Research


Human immunodeficiency virus infection and acquired immune deficiency syndrome


Laboratoire d'Etudes et de Recherche sur les Dynamiques Sociales et le Développement Local


Low and Middle Income Countries


Millenium Development Goals


Non Governmental Organisation


United Nations Children's Fund


World Health Organization


  1. Olivier de Sardan J-P, Ridde V: Une politique publique de santé et ses contradictions : la gratuité des soins au Burkina Faso, au Mali et au Niger. 2014

    Google Scholar 

  2. Ridde V, Olivier de Sardan J-P: Abolishing user fees for patients in West Africa: lessons for public policy. 2013, Paris: AFD, Paris, []

    Google Scholar 

  3. Gilson L, Raphaely N: The terrain of health policy analysis in low and middle income countries: a review of published literature 1994-2007. Health Policy & Planning. 2008, 23: 294-307.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Hibou B: La bureaucratisation du monde à l'ère néolibérale La Découverte. 2012

    Google Scholar 

  5. Bierschenk T, Olivier de Sardan JP: States at Work. The Dynamics of African Bureaucracies. 2014, Leyden: Brill

    Google Scholar 

  6. deLeon P: The stages approach to policy process : what has it done ? Where is it going ?. Theories of the policy process Theoretical lenses on public policy. Edited by: Sabatier PA. 1999, Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 19-32.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Sabatier PA: Fostering the Development of Policy Theory. Theories of the policy process. 2007, Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 321-336. 2

    Google Scholar 

  8. Cohen MD, March JG, Olsen JP: A garbage can model of organizational choice. Adm Sci Q. 1972, 17 (1): 1-25.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Kingdon JW: Agendas, Alternatives and Publics Policies. Edited by: 2. 1995, New York: Harper Collins

    Google Scholar 

  10. Lemieux V: L'étude des politiques publiques, les acteurs et leur pouvoir. 2002, Québec: Les Presses de l'Université Laval, 2

    Google Scholar 

  11. Clay E, Schaffer B: Room for maneuver: an exploration of public policy planning in agriculture and rural development. 1984, London Heinemann

    Google Scholar 

  12. Ridde V: Multiple Streams Theory. The Encyclopedia of Political Science. Edited by: Kurian T. 2010, CQ Press

    Google Scholar 

  13. Ridde V: Policy implementation in an African State : an extension of the Kingdon's multiple-streams approach. Public Administration. 2009, 87 (4): 938-954.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Rochefort DA, Cobb RW: Problem definition : an emerging perspective. The politics of problem definition shaping the policy agenda. Edited by: Rochefort DA, Cobb RW. 1994, Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1-31.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Ridde V: "The problem of the worst-off is dealt with after all other issues": the equity and health policy implementation gap in Burkina Faso. Social Science & Medicine. 2008, 66: 1368-1378.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Pressman JL, Wildavsky A: Implementation. How great expectations in Washington are dashed in Oakland. 1984, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 3

    Google Scholar 

  17. Saetren H: Facts and myths about research on public policy implementation: out-of-fashion, allegedly dead, but still very much alive and relevant. Policy Studies Journal. 2005, 33 (4): 559-582.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Grindle MS, Thomas JW: Public choices and policy change. The political economy of reform in developing countries. 1991, Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press

    Google Scholar 

  19. Nilsen P, Stahl C, Roback K, Cairney P: Never the twain shall meet?--a comparison of implementation science and policy implementation research. Implement Sci. 2013, 8: 63-

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  20. May C: Towards a general theory of implementation. Implement Sci. 2013, 8: 18-

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  21. Bierschenk T: Development projects as an arena of negotiation for strategic groups: A case study from Bénin. Sociologia Ruralis. 1988, 28 (2-3): 146-160.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Olivier de Sardan J-P: Anthropology and Development. Understanding Contemporary Social Change. 2005, London: Zed Books

    Google Scholar 

  23. Jaffré Y, Olivier de Sardan J-P: Une médecine inhospitalière. Les difficiles relations entre soignants et soignés dans cinq capitales d'Afrique de l'Ouest. 2003, Paris: APAD, Karthala

    Google Scholar 

  24. Gobatto I, Lafaye F: Petits arrangements avec la contrainte. Les professionnels de santé face à la prévention de la transmission mère-enfant du VIH à Abidjan (Côte d'Ivoire). Sciences Sociales et Santé. 2005, 23 (1): 79-108.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Erasmus E, Gilson L: How to start thinking about investigating power in the organizational settings of policy implementation. Health Policy & Planning. 2008, 23 (5): 361-368.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Tidjani Alou M: Corruption in the legal system. Everyday corruption and the state Citizens and public officials in Africa. Edited by: Blundo G, Olivier de Sardan J, with Bako Arifari N, Tidjani Alou M. 2006, London: Zed Books

    Google Scholar 

  27. Hamani O: 'We make do and keep going!' The Use of Non-State Resources in the Functioning of the District Courts in Niamey and Zinder (Niger). States at Work The Dynamics of African Bureaucracies. Edited by: Bierschenk T, Olivier de Sardan JP. 2014, Leyden: Brill

    Google Scholar 

  28. Bierschenk T: L'éducation de base en Afrique de l'Ouest francophone. Bien privé, bien public, bien global. Une anthropologie entre rigueur et engagement : essais autour de l'oeuvre de Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan. Edited by: Bierschenk T., Blundo, G., Jaffré, Y. & Tidjani Alou, M. 2007, Association euro-africaine pour l'anthropologie du changement social et du développement. Paris, Leiden: Karthala ; APAD, 596-

    Google Scholar 

  29. Fichtner S: The NGOisation of Education. Case Studies from Benin. 2012, Koln: Ruediger Koeppe Verlag

    Google Scholar 

  30. Bierschenk T, Olivier de Sardan J: Powers in the village. Rural Benin between democratisation and decentralization Africa. 73 (2): 145-173.

  31. Hahonou E: Démocratie et culture politique en Afrique. En attendant la décentralisation au Niger. 2010, Sarrebruck: Editions Universitaires Européennes

    Google Scholar 

  32. Olivier de Sardan J-P, Tidjani Alou M: Les pouvoirs locaux au Niger. En attendant la décentralisation. 2009, Paris: Karthala

    Google Scholar 

  33. Faure A, Pollet G, Warin P: La construction du sens dans les politiques publiques: débats autour de la notion de référentiel. 1995, Paris: L'Harmattan

    Google Scholar 

  34. Muller P: L'analyse cognitive des politiques publiques : vers une sociologie politique de l'action publique. Revue française de science politique. 2000, 50 (2): 189-208.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Béland D, Cox RH: Ideas and Politics in Social Science Research. 2011, New York Oxford University Press

    Google Scholar 

  36. Lascoumes F, Simard L: L'action publique au prisme de ses intruments. Revue française de science politique. 2011, 61 (1): 5-22.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Howlett MP: Designing public policies : principles and instruments. 2011, London ; New York: Routledge

    Google Scholar 

  38. Howlett M: Policy Instruments, Policy Styles, and Policy Implementation: National Approaches to Theories of Instrument Choice. Policy Studies. 1991, 7 (2): 1-21.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Riles A: Documents: artifacts of modern knowledge. 2006, University of Michigan Press

    Google Scholar 

  40. Giovalucchi F, Olivier de Sardan J-P: Planification et gestion dans l'aide au développement : le cadre logique, outil et miroir. Revue Tiers Monde. 2009, 198: 383-406.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Lipsky M: Street-level bureaucracy. Dilemmas of the individual in public services. 2010, New York: Russel Sage Foundation, 1980:

    Google Scholar 

  42. Freidson E: Profession of medicine. A Study of the Sociology of Applied Knowledge. 1979, Chicago: University of Chicago Press

    Google Scholar 

  43. Iliffe J: East African doctors. A history of the modern profession. 1998, Londres: Cambridge University Press

    Google Scholar 

  44. Gobatto I: Etre médecin au Burkina Faso. Dissection sociologique d'une transplantation professionnelle. 1999, Paris: L'harmattan

    Google Scholar 

  45. Bierschenk T, Olivier de Sardan J: ECRIS: Rapid collective inquiry for the identification of conflicts and strategic groups. Hum Organ. 1997, 56 (2): 238-244.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Burawoy M: Manufacturing consent : changes in the labor process under monopoly capitalism. 1979, Chicago: University of Chicago Press

    Google Scholar 

  47. Winter G: Inégalités et politiques publiques en Afrique : pluralités des normes et jeux d'acteurs. 2001, Paris: Karthala : Institut de recherche pour le développement

    Google Scholar 

  48. Gilson L: The lessons of user fee experience in Africa. Health Policy Plan. 1997, 12 (4): 273-285.

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  49. Sen A: The Political Economy of Targeting. Public spending and the poor : theory and evidence. Edited by: Van de Walle D, Nead K. 1995, Baltimore: published for The World Bank by the Johns Hopkins University Press, 11-24.

    Google Scholar 

  50. Ridde V, Kouanda S, Bado A, Bado N, Haddad S: Reducing the Medical Cost of Deliveries in Burkina Faso Is Good for Everyone, Including the Poor. PLoS ONE. 2012, 7 (3): e33082-doi:33010.31371/journal.pone.0033082

    Article  CAS  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  51. Boyko JA, Lavis JN, Abelson J, Dobbins M, Carter N: Deliberative dialogues as a mechanism for knowledge translation and exchange in health systems decision-making. Soc Sci Med. 2012, 75 (11): 1938-1945.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  52. Moha M, Ridde V: La conférence nationale sur la gratuité des soins au Niger: des interactions nécessaires. Une politique publique de santé et ses contradictions : la gratuité des soins au Burkina Faso, au Mali et au Niger. Edited by: Olivier de Sardan J-P, Ridde V. 2014, Paris: Karthala, 472-

    Google Scholar 

  53. Escot F, Ousseini A: Presse sous influence, presse sans opinion. Traitement des politiques de gratuité des soins par les presses écrites nigérienne et malienne. Une politique publique de santé et ses contradictions : la gratuité des soins au Burkina Faso, au Mali et au Niger. Edited by: Olivier de Sardan J-P, Ridde V. 2014, Paris: Karthala, 472-

    Google Scholar 

  54. Walt G, Lush L, Ogden J: International organizations in transfert of infectious diseases : iterative loops of adoption, adaptation and marketing. Governance : An international journal of policy, administration, and institutions. 2004, 17 (2): 189-210.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  55. Naudet J-D: Trouver des problèmes aux solutions: 20 ans d'aide au Sahel. Paris: OCDE. 1999

    Google Scholar 

  56. Olivier de Sardan J-P: Practical norms: informal regulations within public bureaucracies (in Africa and beyond). Real governance and practical norms in Sub-Saharan Africa The game of the rules. Edited by: De Herdt T, Olivier de Sardan J. 2015, London: Routledge

    Google Scholar 

  57. Blundo G, Le Meur PY: The governance of daily life in Africa. Ethnographic explorations of public and collective service. 2009, London: Brill

    Google Scholar 

  58. Olivier de Sardan J-P: State bureaucracy and governance in Francophone West Africa: an empirical diagnosis and historical perspective. The Governance of Daily Life in Africa. Edited by: Blundo G, Le Meur P-Y. 2009, Leiden: Brill, 39-72.

    Google Scholar 

  59. Abiola SE, Gonzales R, Blendon RJ, Benson J: Survey In Sub-Saharan Africa Shows Substantial Support For Government Efforts To Improve Health Services. Health Aff (Millwood). 2011, 30 (8): 1478-1487.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  60. Ridde V, Diarra A: A process evaluation of user fees abolition for pregnant women and children under five years in two districts in Niger (West Africa). BMC Health Services Research. 2009, 9 (89):

  61. Ridde V, Diarra A, Moha M: User fees abolition policy in Niger: Comparing the under five years exemption implementation in two districts. Health Policy. 2011, 99: 219-225.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  62. Titeca K, De Herdt T: Real governance beyond the 'failed state': negotiating education in the democratic Republic of the Congo. African Affairs. 2011, 110 (439): 213-231.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  63. Oliver de Sardan, J.P.: Development, governance and reforms. Studying practical norms in the delivery of public goods and services. Ethnographic Practice and Public Aid: Methods and Meanings in Development Cooperation. Edited by: Hagberg S. 2009, Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis (Uppsala Studies in Cultural Anthropology 45)

  64. Olivier de Sardan J-P: The bureaucratic mode of governance and practical norms in West Africa and beyond. Local politics and contemporary transformations in the Arab world Governance beyond the center. Edited by: Bouziane M, Harders C, Hofmann A. 2013, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

    Google Scholar 

  65. Smith R, Hanson K: What is a "health system". Health Systems in Low-And Middle Income Countries, An Economic Perspective. Edited by: Smith R, Hanson K. 2012, Oxford: Oxford University Press

    Google Scholar 

  66. Grodos D, Mercenier P: Mieux comprendre la méthodologie. La recherche sur les systèmes de santé : pour mieux agir. 2000, Antwerp: ITG Press

    Google Scholar 

  67. Wang H: Comparative health systems. Health Systems Policy, Finance, and Organization. Edited by: G. C. 2009, Oxford: Elsevier

    Google Scholar 

  68. Naudet J-D: Les "guignols de l'info". Réflexions sur la fragilité de l'information statistique. Les Nouveaux Cahiers de l'IUED (VERIFIER). 2002, 31-55.

    Google Scholar 

  69. Ridde V: Une analyse comparative entre le Canada, le Québec et la France : l'importance des rapports sociaux et politiques eu égard aux déterminants et aux inégalités de la santé. Recherches Sociographiques. 2004, XLV (2): 343-364.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  70. WHO: The World Health Report 2000 - Health Systems: Improving Performance. 2000

    Google Scholar 

  71. Ridde V, Robert E, Meessen B: A literature review of the disruptive effects of user fee exemption policies on health systems. BMC Public Health. 2012, 12: 289-

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  72. Mills A, Bennett S, Russell S, Attanayake N: The challenge of health sector reform : what must governments do?. 2001, Houndmills ; New York: Palgrave

    Book  Google Scholar 

  73. Bennett S, Agyepong I, Sheikh K, Hanson K, Ssengooba F, Gilson L: Building the Field of Health Policy and Systems Research: An Agenda for Action. PLoS Med. 2011, 8 (8): e1001081-doi:1001010.1001371/journal.pmed.1001081

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  74. Gilson L, Hanson K, Sheikh K, Agyepong IA, Ssengooba F, Bennett S: Building the field of health policy and systems research: social science matters. PLoS Med. 2011, 8 (8): e1001079-

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  75. Gilson L: Systems research A methodology reader: Alliance for Health Policy and Systems Research. 2012, World Health Organization

    Google Scholar 

  76. Ridde V, Robert E, Guichard A, Blaise P, Van Olmen J: L'approche Realist à l'épreuve du réel. Revue canadienne d'évaluation de programme. 2012, 26 (3): 37-59.

    Google Scholar 

  77. Olivier de Sardan J-P: Epistemology, fieldwork and anthropology. 2015, New-York: Palgrave

    Book  Google Scholar 

  78. WHO: Strategy on Health Policy and Systems Research: Changing Mindsets. 2012, Geneva: Alliance for Health Policy and Systems Research

    Google Scholar 

  79. Victora C, Barros A, Axelson H, Bhutta Z, Chopra M, França G, Kerber K, Kirkwood B, Newby H, Ronsmans C, et al: How changes in coverage affect equity in maternal and child health interventions in 35 Countdown to 2015 countries: an analysis of national surveys. The Lancet. 2012, 380 (9848): 1149-1156.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  80. Dagenais C, Queuille L, Ridde V: Evaluation of a knowledge transfer strategy from user fee exemption program for vulnerable populations in Burkina Faso. Global Health Promotion. 2013, 20 (1 Suppl): 70-79. , Special Issue on Vulnerability and Health in Africa

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  81. Jaffré Y: Pharmacies des villes, pharmacies "par terre". Bulletin de l'APAD. 1999, 17: 63-70.

    Google Scholar 

  82. Baxerres C: Les médicaments du marché informel sont des faux médicaments. Les idées reçues en santé mondiale. Edited by: Ridde V, Ouattara F. 2015, Montréal: Presses de l'Université de Montréal

    Google Scholar 

  83. Hardee K, Ashford L, Rottach E, Jolivet R, Kiesel R: The Policy Dimensions of Scaling Up Health Initiatives. 2012, Washington: Futures Group, Health Policy Project

    Google Scholar 

  84. McConnell A: Policy success, policy failure and grey areas in-between. Journal of Public Policy. 2010, 30 (3): 345-362.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  85. Howlett M: The lessons of failure: learning and blame avoidance in public policy-making. I. International Political Science Review. 2012, 33: 539-555.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  86. Schaaf M, Freedman LP: Unmasking the open secret of posting and transfer practices in the health sector. Health Policy Plan. 2015, 30 (1): 121-130.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  87. Olivier de Sardan J-P, Ridde V: Les spécificités des politiques publiques et des systèmes de santé en Afrique sahélienne. Une politique publique de santé et ses contradictions. La gratuité des soins au Burkina Faso, au Mali et au Niger. Edited by: J.-P. Olivier de Sardan and V. Ridde. 2014, Karthala

    Google Scholar 

  88. Olivier de Sardan J-P: La quantité sans la qualité ? Mises en forme et mises en oeuvre des politiques d'exemptions de paiements au Sahel. Une politique publique de santé et ses contradictions. La gratuité des soins au Burkina Faso, au Mali et au Niger. Edited by: J.-P. Olivier de Sardan and V. Ridde. 2014, Karthala

    Google Scholar 

Download references


We are grateful to Daniel Béland, Philippe Lavigne Delville and Mahaman Moha for their comments on the first draft of this text. This article is drawn from a research program funded by the Agence Française de Développement (AFD) and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) of Canada. Thanks to Susan Cox for the translation of this article. V Ridde holds a CIHR-funded Research Chair in Applied Public Health.


This article has been modified from the chapters Les spécificités des politiques publiques et des systèmes de santé en Afrique sahélienne by J.-P. Olivier de Sardan and V. Ridde [87], and La quantité sans la qualité ? Mises en forme et mises en oeuvre des politiques d'exemptions de paiements au Sahel by J.-P. Olivier de Sardan [88] in the book Une politique publique de santé et ses contradictions. La gratuité des soins au Burkina Faso, au Mali et au Niger, J.-P. Olivier de Sardan and V. Ridde (eds), 2014, Karthala, Paris, with the permission of the publisher. The publication of this supplement was funded by a grant from International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Ottawa, Canada.

This article has been published as part of BMC Health Services Research Volume 15 Supplement 3, 2015: User Fee Exemption Policies. The full contents of the supplement are available online at

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan.

Additional information

Competing interests


Authors' contributions

JPODS and VR conceived the idea, wrote the draft and final version of the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Rights and permissions

This article is published under license to BioMed Central Ltd. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver ( applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated.

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Olivier de Sardan, JP., Ridde, V. Public policies and health systems in Sahelian Africa: theoretical context and empirical specificity. BMC Health Serv Res 15 (Suppl 3), S3 (2015).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • DOI: