Gordon Brown has offered to help some of the world's poorest countries to make healthcare free – starting with pregnant women and children – in a push to widen access to doctors across Africa and Asia.
The Department for International Development (DfID) is among the largest donors to many developing countries, and has pledged to spend £6bn on health by 2015. Brown hopes to use an expanding aid budget to influence the way public services are delivered on the ground.
The prime minister has written to several governments, including those of Kenya, Nepal and Liberia, urging them to consider making healthcare free, and offering Britain's help with the transition. DfID said that could mean help with technical assistance, drugs and ensuring that doctors and nurses receive fair pay deals.
International development secretary Douglas Alexander said: "It is not right that people are denied basic healthcare because they are too poor. Poor health and poverty go hand-in-hand and so we must first improve people's health if we are to improve their lives."
A spokesman for DfID said the UK had been encouraged by the results of efforts to abolish up-front fees for healthcare in several countries, including Uganda, Ghana and Zambia. They argue that for a relatively low cost, doctors can reach many thousands more patients, who could not afford to pay for help.
Since Ghana began providing free healthcare for expectant mothers, with Britain's help, 433,000 more women have been treated; in Burundi, the number of health checks offered to the under-fives has trebled since fees were scrapped.
"This won't happen overnight but we hope in the years ahead we will see a historic shift that will revolutionise health services in the world's poorest countries," said Alexander.
World leaders promised to reduce maternal mortality by two-thirds by 2015, as one of the Millennium Development Goals, but a recent UN report said it was one of the targets against which least progress had been made. More than half a million women a year die in childbirth or as a result of falling pregnant. Brown and Alexander believe access to healthcare must be widened, if the goal is to be reached.
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