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Open Access Open Badges Research article

The social relations of health care and household resource allocation in neoliberal Nicaragua

Laura E Tesler

Author affiliations

Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, University of California, San Francisco, San Francisco, CA 94143, USA

Citation and License

BMC International Health and Human Rights 2010, 10:9  doi:10.1186/1472-698X-10-9

Published: 22 May 2010



With the transition to neoliberalism, Nicaragua's once-critically acclaimed health care services have substantially diminished. Local level social formations have been under pressure to try to bridge gaps as the state's role in the provision of health care and other vital social services has decreased. This paper presents a case study of how global and national health policies reverberated in the social relations of an extended network of female kin in a rural community during late 2002 - 2003.


The qualitative methods used in this ethnographic study included semi-structured interviews completed during bi-weekly visits to 51 households, background interviews with 20 lay and professional health practitioners working in the public and private sectors, and participant-observation conducted in the region's government health centers. Interviews and observational field notes were manually coded and iteratively reviewed to identify and conceptually organize emergent themes. Three households of extended kin were selected from the larger sample to examine as a case study.


The ongoing erosion of vital services formerly provided by the public sector generated considerable frustration and tension among households, networks of extended kin, and neighbors. As resource allocations for health care seeking and other needs were negotiated within and across households, longstanding ideals of reciprocal exchange persisted, but in conditions of poverty, expectations were often unfulfilled, exposing the tension between the need for social support, versus the increasingly oppositional positioning of social network members as sources of competition for limited resources.


In compliance with neoliberal structural adjustment policies mandated by multilateral and bilateral agencies, government-provided health care services have been severely restricted in Nicaragua. As the national safety net for health care has been eroded, the viability of local level social formations and their ability to respond to struggles collectively has been put at risk as well. Bi-lateral and multilateral agencies need to take into account local needs and demands, and implement policies in a manner that respects national laws, and protects both the physical and social well-being of individuals.