Does a Ban on Informal Health Providers Save Lives?

Evidence from Malawi

by Susan Godlonton, Edward N. Okeke

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Informal health providers ranging from drug vendors to traditional healers account for a large fraction of health care provision in developing countries. They are, however, largely unlicensed and unregulated leading to concern that they provide ineffective and, in some cases, even harmful care. A new and controversial policy tool that has been proposed to alter household health seeking behavior is an outright ban on these informal providers. The theoretical effects of such a ban are ambiguous. In this paper, we study the effect of a ban on informal (traditional) birth attendants imposed by the Malawi government in 2007. To measure the effect of the ban, we use a difference-in-difference strategy exploiting variation across time and space in the intensity of exposure to the ban. Our most conservative estimates suggest that the ban decreased use of traditional attendants by about 15 percentage points. Approximately three quarters of this decline can be attributed to an increase in use of the formal sector and the remainder is accounted for by an increase in relative/friend-attended births. Despite the rather large shift from the informal to the formal sector, we do not find any evidence of a statistically significant reduction in newborn mortality on average. The results are robust to a triple difference specification using young children as a control group. We examine several explanations for this result and find evidence consistent with quality of formal care acting as a constraint on improvements in newborn health.

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