The paper explores the implications for health policy of the segmentation of society into social groups with very different levels of income and wealth. Discourses on equity in health are presently dominated by a debate between ‘European’ and ‘American’ models of health delivery. This has led to a focus on ideal outcomes rather than practical options for organising and financing health services in poor countries undergoing rapid change.
The paper argues for a more explicit acknowledgement of the dynamic character of health development and the political nature of the negotiations regarding the use of government powers. Unregulated markets for health care are neither equitable nor efficient. Government must play a role in supporting the organisation of health services used by different social groups. Countries with low levels of inequality may be able to provide universal access to relatively sophisticated health services. Otherwise, governments need to operate within a segmented system. This means the negotiation of strategies to reduce the burden of sickness and premature death, whilst meeting the needs of different social groups. The discussion is organised in terms of the powers of government to require individuals and institutions to transfer resources for social uses, enforce regulations and generate and disseminate information. The paper concludes that governments committed to equity-enhancing health development need to increase their capacity to facilitate coalition building and manage change. It proposes an international public health legal framework that might include a definition of minimum standards for certain health services, to be underwritten by national and international financial commitments.