Sunday, January 10, 2010

Hillary's ICPD speech was stirring, but short on specifics

WASHINGTON, DC -- My arrival at the State Department for Hillary Clinton’s much anticipated speech Friday marking the 15th year of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) started with a chilly reception – literally. We were required to line up in the 30-something January weather and wait to get into the security area of the main State Department building. My only consolation was that I was in auspicious company: In front of me, United Nations Foundation President Tim Wirth, who led the U.S. government delegation to ICPD during the Clinton Administration, a fact that was later acknowledged by Secretary Clinton). Behind me was Her Excellency Hawa Olga Ndilowe, Malawi ambassador to the U.S. Both of them mentioned to me how cold they were.

However, all of that was forgotten fifteen minutes later when we all – foundation presidents, ambassadors and mere mortals like myself – walked into the splendors of the Benjamin Franklin State Dining Room on the eighth floor. The Ben Franklin Room, the largest of the State Department’s diplomatic reception rooms, was redesigned in the classical manner and completed in 1985. This monumental room has free-standing Corinthian columns along the walls and the Great Seal of the United States, depicted in plaster and gilt, in the center of the ceiling, along with eight Adam-style cut-glass chandeliers. In sharp contrast to the ugly experior of the building we were in, I now felt like I was in Versailles.

This event had already been postponed twice – once when Hillary had to travel to Copenhagen with President Obama for the climate change summit and again when the federal government shut down on Dec. 21 after a historic snowfall. But it finally happened and Hillary did not disappoint.

She delivered a passionate message about the importance of the ICPD goals (“one woman dies every minute of every day in pregnancy or childbirth, and for every woman who dies, another 20 suffer from injury, infection or disease every minute”) and the difference their realization could make not only in health, but also in other spheres of development like education, climate change and agriculture.

But it would have been hard to find a better example of speaking to the choir than Secretary Clinton speaking to this committed crowd of people who had made the ICPD their lives work. Most of what she said, we already knew.

What I wanted to know is: What would we do to achieve the ICPD goal? And I thought that is what Hillary would lay out when she said, early in her speech: “Part of the reason we wanted to have this commemoration is not only to look backwards, but to look forward. What is it we will do between now and 2015?”

But Hillary never answered that question in any specificity. So we wait for the details of President Obama’s Global Health Initiative, which we hope will answer those questions and provide more guidance on how we can achieve the vision of ICPD by 2015.

Hillary gave an excellent speech in the magnificence of the Benjamin Franklin Room and we celebrated afterwards with champagne and hors d’oeuvres. And now we return to the real world, and get down to the business of achieving ICPD in the next five years.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

How committed is Hillary to reproductive health?

Last year in Berlin, I attended an NGO forum on the the 15th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development which was trying to figure out how to achieve the ICPD targets set in 1994 on universal access to reproductive health. I met several people there who had been delegates to the 1994 summit in Cairo and one of them recollected how the stars had aligned that year to produce something important in sexual and reproductive health amid a sea of “bad years.” She cited three developments that made this historic alignment possible:

- The existence of a charismatic, committed and politically saavy leader in the person of Undersecretary of State Tim Wirth (now the president of the United Nations Foundation), who was unrelenting in pushing forward the agenda of the ICPD;

- A supportive U.S. administration and Congress: Bill Clinton had been in office for less than two years and had given reproductive health higher priority than it had for many years; and

- An increasingly sophisticated non-governmental organization movement which played a leading role in making ICPD a reality.

This unprecedented alignment started falling apart later that same year when conservative Republicans took control of Congress and the Clinton Administration lost its early momentum.

This ICPD delegate told me she saw a similar aligning of the stars happening now – a progressive and supportive American administration and Congress — after eight long years — and an even more sophisticated civil society than was the case in 1994. The only thing missing, she said, was a charismatic and committed leader like Tim Wirth.

Later that same day, I talked to another person who had been in Cairo in 1994 as a senior U.S. government official. He agreed with this scenario and thought that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could be that leader that some believe will be necessary to finally ensure universal access to reproductive health.

This Friday, Secretary Clinton is making a major speech marking the 15th annniversary of ICPD in Washington. That speech might give us a glimpse of whether she has the passion and the commitment to not only reaffirm the 2015 goals and targets of ICPD, which she will undoubtedly do, but take the cause to the next level, providing the leadership to inspire others to actually achieve the vision of ICPD over the remaining five years. Those of us who care about family planning and reproductive health are looking forward to watching Secretary Clinton this week and are ready to support her in this effort.