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Human resources for maternal health: multi-purpose or specialists?

Vincent Fauveau1*, Della R Sherratt2 and Luc de Bernis3

Author Affiliations

1 Technical Services Division, UNFPA (Geneva Office), 11 Chemin des Anemones, 1219 Chatelaine, Switzerland

2 Wotton under Edge, UK

3 Africa Division, UNFPA, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

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Human Resources for Health 2008, 6:21  doi:10.1186/1478-4491-6-21

Published: 30 September 2008


A crucial question in the aim to attain MDG5 is whether it can be achieved faster with the scaling up of multi-purpose health workers operating in the community or with the scaling up of professional skilled birth attendants working in health facilities. Most advisers concerned with maternal mortality reduction concur to promote births in facilities with professional attendants as the ultimate strategy. The evidence, however, is scarce on what it takes to progress in this path, and on the 'interim solutions' for situations where the majority of women still deliver at home. These questions are particularly relevant as we have reached the twentieth anniversary of the safe motherhood initiative without much progress made.

In this paper we review the current situation of human resources for maternal health as well as the problems that they face. We propose seven key areas of work that must be addressed when planning for scaling up human resources for maternal health in light of MDG5, and finally we indicate some advances recently made in selected countries and the lessons learned from these experiences. Whilst the focus of this paper is on maternal health, it is acknowledged that the interventions to reduce maternal mortality will also contribute to significantly reducing newborn mortality.

Addressing each of the seven key areas of work – recommended by the first International Forum on 'Midwifery in the Community', Tunis, December 2006 – is essential for the success of any MDG5 programme.

We hypothesize that a great deal of the stagnation of maternal health programmes has been the result of confusion and careless choices in scaling up between a limited number of truly skilled birth attendants and large quantities of multi-purpose workers with short training, fewer skills, limited authority and no career pathways. We conclude from the lessons learnt that no significant progress in maternal mortality reduction can be achieved without a strong political decision to empower midwives and others with midwifery skills, and a substantial strengthening of health systems with a focus on quality of care rather than on numbers, to give them the means to respond to the challenge.