District governance and improved maternal, neonatal and child health in South Africa: Pathways of change
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District-level initiatives to improve maternal, neonatal and child health (MNCH) generally do not take governance as their primary lens on health system strengthening. This paper is a case study of a district and sub-district governance mechanism, the Monitoring and Response Unit (MRU), which aimed to improve MNCH outcomes in two districts of South Africa. The MRU was intro- duced as a decision-making and accountability structure, and constituted of a “triangle” of managers, clinicians and information officers. An independent evaluation of the MRU initiative was conducted, three years after establishment, involving interviews with 89 district actors. Interviewees reported extensive changes in the scope, quality and organization of MNCH services, attributing these to the introduction of the MRU and enhanced support from district clinicians. We describe both the formal and informal aspects of the MRU as a governance mechanism, and then consider the pathways through which the MRU plausibly acted as a catalyst for change, using the institutional constructs of credible commitment, coordination and cooperation. In particular, the MRU promoted the formation of non-hierarchical collaborative networks; improved coordination between community, PHC and hospital services; and shaped collective sense-making in positive ways. We conclude that innovations in governance could add significant value to the district health system strengthening for improved MNCH. However, this requires a shift in focus from strengthening the front-line of service delivery, to change at the meso-level of sub-district and district decision-making; and from purely technical, data-driven to more holistic approaches that engage collective mindsets, widen participation in decision-making and nurture political leader- ship skills.
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