Development assistance, a cushion for Nigeria’s underfunded health sector, has been dwindling, with financiers expecting the country to outgrow dependence and become self-sustainable in donor-backed areas such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria.
International aid to the health sector is projected to grow by just 0.3 percent of total health expenditure by 2050, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), driving a rising call for domestic actors in Nigeria’s health sector to take on significant input.
Yet, the few interventions implemented through non-governmental organisations (NGOs) still have to face certain hurdles before their effort to extend free medical aid to the doorsteps of deprived Nigerians gets to materialise.
It is almost a norm for organisations looking to offer public aid in underserved communities to equip themselves against local resistance, mistrust, and sometimes huge financial demands that leave sponsors discouraged.
Developing functional and productive strategies may not be enough. Coordinators have to also arm themselves with grassroots tactics and a well-worked plan for government approvals and agreements with community leaders, Emmanuel Osemota, coordinator of the Emmanuel Osemota Foundation and a US-based Nigerian epidemiologist, said.
The hassle of implementing interventions sometimes highlights how local resistance and environmental fragility dissuade businesses from investing in or performing social responsibilities that benefit the poor and needy.
Last March, a free eye screening at a market in Oshodi, Lagos, was called off after some thugs pulled down their tents because the NGO insisted on a policy of not bribing or buying their way into offering charity.
The free drugs and other medical aids had to be redirected to another location, leaving most market women deprived of the opportunity. Jeme Adomi, an optometrist and public health researcher who led the initiative, recalled it in a post.
“Big shame. These programmes are actually invaluable. I’ve been part of similar programs and remember a lady whose eye pressure was about 27; she would have ended up blind! On another, a man had a systolic blood pressure of 185! “I’m wondering how many such people lost out here,” Sanni Ayo wrote, reacting to Adome’s post.
Also relaying her experience, Ololade Ajayi, founder of DOHS Cares Foundation, an advocacy group for women and vulnerable people facing abuse and exploitation, said the group was pressured to halt a recent sensitization on female genital mutilation in markets after locals insisted on some monetary demands.
It goes on in other parts of the country. But NGOs such as the EOF are finding ways around it. Since 2006, the foundation has utilized grassroots tactics to address pressing medical inequalities in some of the most vulnerable communities in Edo State.
The EOF’s eyes are on implementing evidence-based strategies to encourage healthy living, tackle the disease, and nurture relationships with low-income communities in desperate need of help.
Read also: Making a case for the health sector
In 2020, for instance, the foundation led one of its largest outreaches on September 24. The team set up a mini medical clinic in the town hall in Okabere, Ikpoba Okha local government area, to provide free medical services to anyone interested.
They obtained permission from community leaders, the Okhiaghele, to proceed with administering their services. With medical equipment in such short supply in Nigeria, emphasis was placed on moving the technology kits required to the town hall, preparing them safely, and utilizing them as much as possible.
The setup included a nurses’ station, mini lab, optometrist station, dental station, medical doctors’ station, and pharmacy station. All participants received a health education talk from Ochuko Onovae, a medical doctor, and participated in testing programs and data collection for key diseases and general health screenings.
Within just a few hours, over 200 community members were served. Over 40 conditions were diagnosed, and more than 100 prescriptions were distributed. The coordination and collaboration that went into this on-the-ground initiative illustrate how NGOs can make their mark in needy communities despite the challenges. By putting self-sufficiency first, Osemota and his team are forging reliable relationships to impact lives.
“At the core of so many social issues is a troubling lack of access to reliable healthcare, and even when medical treatment is available, ineffective communication strategies prevent so many at-risk people from seeking the help they need,” said Osemota. “By focusing on the connection between outreach and access, we aim to provide sustainable solutions that uplift new generations of strong Nigerians.”
The EOF is led by its founder, Emmanuel Osemota, a Nigerian working at the crossroads of medical outreach, human trafficking prevention, and community engagement.
As an epidemiologist, Osemota blends practical insight with interpersonal relations to deliver empathic and effective on-the-ground strategies that protect young children, invest in their potential, and sustain the empowerment of vulnerable people over the long term.
The EOF medical outreach method is built around the gaps in the health systems in Nigeria, their connection to NGOs, and the delivery of high-quality care directly to those in need.
Nigeria’s strive for development still has its health systems at the tail end, with insufficient resources across the board, especially as the country’s population continues to outpace economic growth.
The lack of modern medical facilities plays a role in the country’s inability to keep pace with the exponential birth rate, but the short supply of medical professionals also has an impact. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the country needs roughly 237,000 doctors to treat the population effectively. At the moment, there are only 35,000 doctors working in Nigeria, according to the Medical and Dental Council of Nigeria (MDCN).
These issues are coupled with insufficient surveillance health systems, which are critical for tracking, containing, and preventing the spread of diseases. The shortage of modern medical facilities again prevents the development of such programs, as does the low supply of medical professionals and leaders.
With such a weak foundation for the health system, organisations willing to assist often struggle to distribute resources adequately and find footing to develop aid programs. The EOF is keenly aware of this root problem and has developed its strategies accordingly.
The mission of the EOF is simple: to empower communities to be self-sustainable by addressing basic needs on an individual level. In order to achieve this goal, the EOF works hard to synergize with existing leaders in target regions. No one knows communities better than local leaders – a reality that Osemota and his team fully embrace and utilize in every outreach program.
Collaborating closely with influential community members also includes coordinating with people who understand the state of existing health systems already in play within a community. As an epidemiologist himself, Osemota has a basis of shared knowledge that aids collaboration with such medical leaders.
“We are not here to tell people what to do or coerce them into accepting help they’re not ready to accept,” said Osemota. “With self-sufficiency such a crucial pillar of our work, we see it as essential for the people we help to understand what we provide and why—a big part of earning this trust is working with existing health systems, not against them.”
For example, the EOF always seeks permission from community leaders before offering free medical outreach programs. Because their consent and endorsement are a solidified part of the program, the EOF team has an easier time delivering care in a trustworthy manner than organizations that do so without community collaboration.
Complementing existing health systems secures success for the EOF’s medical outreach efforts, both on a day-to-day basis and on a big-picture scale.
NGOs are essential providers of health care and education across African countries. In a perfect world, governments would be able to provide such programs on their own; regardless of the root cause of why NGOs are so important, people still need access to these resources.
The scope of NGOs is also on the rise. Between 1997 and 2006, the nonprofit sector in South Africa grew by 400 percent.
“Though we are a proud NGO with financial backers from around the world, we are proud to balance the resources of outside support with the existing government leaders in our target regions in Nigeria,” said Osemota. “This is a tricky line to walk, but we see firsthand on the ground the difference a sanitary pad, vaccine, and medicine make in the lives of actual people.”
So many more medical outreach initiatives are already in the works at the EOF. As well as delivering tangible healthcare, the organization will continue to expand other ventures such as health education, sex trafficking prevention, and academic scholarship distribution focused on growing the availability of Nigerian doctors.
“We view nonprofit work as a holistic strategy, but we also know that healthcare is a pillar of quality of life. By developing such a compassionate, people-first approach to medical outreach and healthcare equality, I’m confident we’re making strides in protecting the potential of the rising generation of Nigerians,” said Osemota.