Lessons from Cuba

by Jessica Toale, LCID Member
Cuban Ambulance (C) Alberto Cárdenas Almeida
No one could argue that post-Revolutionary Cuba has been an economic success story; however, an unmitigated programme of social equality despite economic hardship has ensured that the country boasts some of the highest human development indicators in the world. This strategy can provide some valuable lessons for much of the developing world, and even the UK in the face of continuing economic crisis.

 

Invest in basic healthcare and education for all

Despite recurrent economic and political crisis, Cuba has prioritised investment in healthcare and education. Both are free for all citizens and a significant amount of resource goes into research and development. As a result, literacy levels are as high as those of more developed countries, they have been able to eradicate many infectious diseases that still affect countries with similar levels of economic development, and despite being an underdeveloped country the most common causes of death are cancer and cerebral vascular disease, diseases associated with more developed and urban societies.

 

Make training professionals a priority

After the Revolution half of Cuba’s 6000 qualified doctors left the country. As a result, Cuba made training a priority, and from January 1959 to 2010 close to 109,000 doctors graduated from Cuban universities. This year Cuba has trained 11,000 doctors – 5315 Cubans and 5694 from 59 other countries (the highest numbers of students come from Bolivia, Nicaragua, Peru, Ecuador, Guatemala, Colombia.) In addition, this year a total of 32,171 health professionals will graduate from Cuban universities in over 21 specialities in medicine, dentistry, psychology, nursing and health tech. These studies are free of charge for both Cuban and overseas national students, and a result of this focus on training Cuban healthcare has become world renowned – most recently Hugo Chavez visited Cuba for cancer treatment, and South Africa has requested the help of Cuban doctors.

Commit to regional and international development

Cuba regularly trains more health professionals than it needs as part of its foreign and humanitarian policy. New doctors are required to do a two-year rotation overseas providing medical advice in other developing countries. Cuban professionals are currently training 29,000+ students in three careers (Medicine, Nursing, Health Technology) in 8 countries: Venezuela, Bolivia, Angola, Tanzania, Guinea Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, Gambia, Timor Leste. While some of this medical aid is traded for essential goods affected by the US blockade, Cuba has also become one of the world’s leading exporters of humanitarian aid professionals with one humanitarian worker overseas per 228 people in country.

Cubans have been pragmatic in the face of the many challenges affecting their country, but it still has a long way to go. Higher levels of education and life expectancy require corollary opportunities for development and growth, which currently do not exist. Low state-paid salaries are propelling qualified professionals into the tourism sector and discouraging young people from committing to higher education.

What the Cuban model does demonstrate however is that lack of economic resources is not the determining factor for improving indicators of social well-being. This is an important challenge to the Coalition Government’s focus on private sector development as the primary means of poverty reduction and delivery of essential services. Cuba has proven that indicators of social well-being can be improved with concerted state investment in health and education and that these improvements can be significant enough to provide an effective overseas development aid strategy.

 

Cuba is very much a country in transition that is experimenting with new forms of local economic development to encourage enterprise and investment. These new developments have the opportunity to provide interesting case study material for the debate around how best to support local private sector growth in tandem with public sector development.

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