Saturday, May 22, 2010

World Health Assembly has its frustrations, but we have to try

GENEVA, Switzerland — My first World Health Assembly closed yesterday and I am trying to assess what difference it made, how the Global Health Council fits in and whether it is worth our time. I don’t even think I knew what WHA was when I was at PSI. I had heard of it — barely — but had no real idea what it did or why PSI should care.

I have since found out that the WHA is the mechanism through which the World Health Organization (WHO) is governed by its 193 member states, and is the world's highest health policy-setting body. The main tasks of the WHA are to approve the WHO program and budget for the next two years, and to decide major health policy issues.

I came away skeptical of our odds of influencing very much the global health dialogue that takes place in Geneva every may. But I also came away convinced that we — as leaders of civil society on global health issues — have to make every effort on behalf of our members who care about these issues, and very few of whom can come to Geneva themselves. That is one of the many things that they pay us to do when they sign on as members.

And just as I now feel that it is difficult for GHC — or any other member of civil society — to influence the G8 or G20, it is a very appropriate role for us to play as convener and representative of civil society on global health.

I was appalled at how civil society was marginalized (or even ignored) in the larger plenary meetings, where we were confined to an area that was way too small and where we could not hear anything if we did not have headphones, most of which did not work anyway.

But I was delighted that in other “special meetings” and “side events,” we could be sitting next to the health minister of Cambodia or Tanzania, and have just as good a chance of them as being called upon by the moderator to ask a question.

And, in the end, the Global Health Council got three minutes to address all 193 country members of the WHO: Where else would be get that opportunity?