This paper discusses the present and future role of the health professions in health services delivery systems in low-income countries. Unlike richer countries, most low-income countries do not have a tradition of labour market regulation and the capacity of the professions themselves to regulate the provision of health services by their members tends to be weak. The paper looks at the impact of professional monopolies on the performance of health services delivery systems, e.g. equity of access, effectiveness of services, efficiency in the use of scarce resources, responsiveness to users' needs, including protection against the financial impact of utilising health services. It identifies issues which policy-makers face in relation to opening the health labour market while guaranteeing the safety and security of services provided by professionals. The suggestion is made that a "social contract", granting privileges of practice in exchange of a commitment to actively maintain and enhance the quality of their services, may be a viable course of action. This would require that the actors in the policy process collaborate in strengthening the capacity of regulatory agencies to perform their role.