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Although medical products that are of sound quality are fundamental to the delivery of healthcare, so too is their availability, affordability, accessibility and acceptability. However, achieving all of these aims consistently and simultaneously may be unfeasible due to a host of barriers-no matter the country. If uncertainty, constraints and conflicting priorities also threaten their delivery, not only does the situation becomes yet more challenging, the morally just course of action becomes yet more opaque. While global health organisations, supply chains and projects are heterogenous, international non-governmental organisations (iNGOs) responding to humanitarian crises or delivering development assistance in low-income and middle-income countries are undoubtedly prone to this issue. In a novel framing of the problem of substandard and falsified medicines, this article explores some ethical dilemmas that, directly or indirectly, could result in the quality of medical products in iNGO health projects to be compromised. Drawing on a broad literature base and years of experience as a senior humanitarian pharmacist, the author reflects on the barriers, culture and system that contributes to the existence and persistence of substandard and falsified medical products in global assistance projects. The paper offers an in-depth examination of pressures that may arise in four key areas (capacity, supply chain, bureaucracy and quality assurance) and postulates on the myriad ways in which this may alter the attitudes, behaviours and decision-making of iNGOs in a manner that disincentivises the prioritisation of medical product quality. This paper does not seek to excoriate the aid sector, but rather to lend a new perspective: that such predicaments are overlooked, real-world ethical dilemmas in urgent need of greater openness, research, debate and guidance, for the benefit of moral decision-making and patient care.

Original publication




Journal article


BMJ Glob Health

Publication Date





health policy, health systems, public health