Background: District health systems in Africa depend largely on public funding. In many countries, not only are these funds insufficient, but they are also released in an untimely fashion, thereby creating serious cash flow problems for district health managers. This paper examines how the untimely release of public sector health funds in Ghana affects district health activities and the way district managers cope with the situation.
Methods: A qualitative approach using semi-structured interviews was adopted. Two regions (Northern and Ashanti) covering the northern and southern sectors of Ghana were strategically selected. Sixteen managers (eight directors of health services and eight district health accountants) were interviewed between 2003/2004. Data generated were analysed for themes and patterns.
Results: The results showed that untimely release of funds disrupts the implementation of health activities and demoralises district health staff. However, based on their prior knowledge of when funds are likely to be released, district health managers adopt a range of informal mechanisms to cope with the situation. These include obtaining supplies on credit, borrowing cash internally, pre-purchasing materials, and conserving part of the fourth quarter donor-pooled funds for the first quarter of the next year. While these informal mechanisms have kept the district health system in Ghana running in the face of persistent delays in funding, some of them are open to abuse and could be a potential source of corruption in the health system.
Conclusion: Official recognition of some of these informal managerial strategies will contribute to eliminating potential risks of corruption in the Ghanaian health system and also serve as an acknowledgement of the efforts being made by local managers to keep the district health system functioning in the face of budgetary constraints and funding delays. It may boost the confidence of the managers and even enhance service delivery.