District health systems, comprising primary health care and first referral hospitals, are key to the delivery of basic health services in developing countries. They should be prioritized in resource allocation and in the building of management and service capacity. The relegation in the World Health Report 2000 of primary health care to a 'second generation' reform--to be superseded by third generation reforms with a market orientation--flows from an analysis that is historically flawed and ideologically biased. Primary health care has struggled against economic crisis and adjustment and a neoliberal ideology often averse to its principles. To ascribe failures of primary health care to a weakness in policy design, when the political economy has starved it of resources, is to blame the victim. Improvement in the working and living conditions of health workers is a precondition for the effective delivery of public health services. A multidimensional programme of health worker rehabilitation should be developed as the foundation for health service recovery. District health systems can and should be financed (at least mainly) from public funds. Although in certain situations user fees have improved the quality and increased the utilization of primary care services, direct charges deter health care use by the poor and can result in further impoverishment. Direct user fees should be replaced progressively by increased public finance and, where possible, by prepayment schemes based on principles of social health insurance with public subsidization. Priority setting should be driven mainly by the objective to achieve equity in health and wellbeing outcomes. Cost effectiveness should enter into the selection of treatments for people (productive efficiency), but not into the selection of people for treatment (allocative efficiency). Decentralization is likely to be advantageous in most health systems, although the exact form(s) should be selected with care and implementation should be phased in after adequate preparation. The public health service should usually play the lead provider role in district health systems, but non-government providers can be contracted if needed. There is little or no evidence to support proactive privatization, marketization or provider competition. Democratization of political and popular involvement in health enhances the benefits of decentralization and community participation. Integrated district health systems are the means by which specific health programmes can best be delivered in the context of overall health care needs. International assistance should address communicable disease control priorities in ways that strengthen local health systems and do not undermine them. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria should not repeat the mistakes of the mass campaigns of past decades. In particular, it should not set programme targets that are driven by an international agenda and which are achievable only at the cost of an adverse impact on sustainable health systems. Above all the targets must not retard the development of the district health systems so badly needed by the rural poor.