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Entering the Global Arena - MSA at the World Health Assembly

By: Lori Warrens, MedSurplus Alliance Director

The World Health Organization (WHO) is an agency of the United Nations (UN) that serves as the UN coordination authority for international health improvement, particularly among disadvantaged populations. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that non-governmental organizations (NGOs), working to advance their health initiatives, seek an official seat at the WHO table as governing bodies develop policies, strategies, and programs. The WHO welcomes collaboration, but offers NGOs just one path to an official working relationship: the non-State actor in official relations status with the WHO.

The Task Force recently received this official status in recognition of our contributions to control, eliminate, and eradicate infectious diseases, strengthen health systems, and advance public health. With this invitation comes a new level of visibility, access, and influence that has the potential to make all the difference when it comes to achieving our goals, including sending a delegation to the World Health Assembly: the governing body of WHO’s 194 member states and the world’s highest health policy-setting body.

As The Task Force delegate to the 72nd Assembly in May, I was provided the opportunity, on behalf of The Task Force, to engage, inform, and advocate on a broader scale. The Assembly is a whirlwind of official meetings in the UN Palace of Nations (UN) where official work from the past year is reviewed, new goals are set, and new tasks are assigned. In addition to these official happenings, there are offsite non-official events and community-wide celebrations.

With official status, The Task Force has access to the Assembly agenda, plenary, and side meetings, and the opportunity to participate by submitting official statements into the record.  This year’s Assembly highlights included resolutions related to Universal Health Coverage (UHC), including themes of primary healthcare, the role of community health workers, emergency care systems, and access to medicines. The member states also agreed on a global strategy for health with regard to the environment and climate change, resolving to improve access to safe water, sanitation, and hygiene services.

During the Assembly, while delegates debate policy in the Assembly Hall and adjacent meeting rooms, just outside are common spaces where delegates can explore a range of exhibits, interactive experiences, and pop-up events. Ranging from presentations on inflatable isolation field tents designed to support teams combating the Ebola virus to asking delegates to help create UHC-themed collaborative murals, these interactions give delegates a unique opportunity to advance their initiatives and build constituencies around various global health issues.

It was at a pop-up event that I met Dr. Shams B. Syed, leader of the WHO Global Learning Laboratory for Quality Universal Health Care. Last year, he and his team took the bold step — noticed around the world — of placing compassion at the very heart of quality, people-centered health services.

Since compassion is at the core of The Task Force mission, Dr. Syed’s work informs our Focus Area for Compassion and Ethics (FACE), a program that aims to help us engage in conversations regarding the crucial ethical issues facing global health today. FACE Director, Dr. David Addiss and Dr. Syed welcome the official status designation as a means to strengthen their collaboration and expand both The Task Force and WHO’s community of stakeholders.

Additionally, Dr. Syed’s event attracted delegates responsible for creating quality improvement programs in their respective countries. As the Director of the MedSurplus Alliance, a program which supports a novel approach to medical donation program standards and accreditation, the pop-up event offered me a meaningful collaborative opportunity.

Outside of the UN offices, there are offsite non-official events, presentations, and networking opportunities. For example, an event sponsored by Merck KGaA called “Leaving no one behind: from philanthropy to sustainable health solutions,” featured a high-level discussion about local manufacturing as part of an integrated approach to tackling neglected tropical diseases and advancing UHC. The event included a networking reception and the debut of Merck KGaA’s powerful photo exhibition showcasing the journey and faces of a community living in a schistosomiasis endemic rural environment in Ethiopia.

In alignment with the goals of the Assembly, woven into the city are less formal, but in many ways just as powerful events. One such example from this past Assembly was the 2nd Annual Walk the Talk: The Health for All Challenge which invited Geneva residents and Assembly attendees to come together for a few hours of aerobics, walking and running through the city.  Along the route, Geneva’s beautiful venues greeted Assembly participants with health-themed art installations and messages of hope for a healthier world. The walk challenged everyone to commit to a healthy lifestyle and served as a warm-up for the nine-days of activities to come.

I left the Assembly inspired by delegates from around the world coming together to support the unifying goal of UHC, taking on seemingly intractable health challenges while respecting diverse values, goals and cultures. Moving forward, our new official status demonstrates The Task Force’s commitment to WHO initiatives while giving us the opportunity to expand our leadership, partnerships, and programs worldwide.


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