Political from every perspective: reflections on the World Health Summit

Featured photo shows panel on The Digital Healthcare Revolution, courtesy of Mary Harasym.

Last week, Global Health (GH) superstars from around the world congregated in Berlin for the annual World Health Summit, and a group of students from the MScGH’s class of 2019 were fortunate enough to join them. For most, it was our first experience of a major international conference, and we therefore enjoyed the opportunity while also casting a critical eye on the proceedings…

WHS 8
Berlin looking lush in the autumn sun. Photo courtesy of Philippa Simmonds.

“The common overarching theme in the 2018 World Health Summit was that there need to be better partnerships, communication and relationships between all involved in GH, namely: non-governmental organisations, private companies and public institutions. I noticed many organisations and stakeholders using a staggering proportion of their “screen time” listing their numerous achievements, or other such public relations exercises. I valued the opportunity to experience this interface and learn as much from what was said as what went unsaid.

A call to action was instigated at the end of the conference. I foresee a great challenge ahead aligning these humanitarian, capitalistic and governmental goals. To tackle these global inequalities and other health challenges affecting the communities of our world, we should therefore be prepared to hold our leaders accountable and humbly challenge their decisions, reflecting not only how they affect our local communities, but how they might impact our wider global community.” David Horner

WHS 5
Bill Gates outlines three examples of innovation in Global Health. Photo courtesy of Julie Boelt.

“I went to the World Health Summit without any expectations and with an open mind, interested to observe how such a big event discussing GH issues and solutions would unfold.

I really missed inclusiveness and a diverse panel. It was either all-male panels or all-white panels; I missed seeing women of colour. At one of the sessions I attended, an audience member made a really good comment asking why there were no women on the panel. The answer was the usual; “We tried to get a well-known woman from Tanzania, but it didn’t work out, as the papers took a long time…” But there were so many skilled, capable women attending the summit, it shouldn’t have depended on the availability of just ONE! If you are serious about making the event diverse, engaging and encouraging, then you have to try and fit the role to another woman. There is definitely room for improvement here.” Hajer Hadi

WHS 2
Women in Global Health outline how their organisation came into being. Photo courtesy of Cecilie Ammitzbøll-Dinh.

“Many aspects of the event (such as the sparkling wine and fried cheese) felt somewhat inappropriate, given that the effects of an unhealthy diet and the implications of poverty were recurring themes during the conference. Does all this decadence provide an important incentive for hard workers (and donors) to get on board with the GH agenda, or is it symptomatic of fundamental contradictions within the global development industry. Or perhaps both?

Several of the issues discussed during the event were related to the problematic effects of modern animal agriculture, however this particularly topic seemed firmly off-limits. In particular, no mention was made of the detrimental health effects of meat consumption during the NCD panel, and no-one on the Antimicrobial Resistance panel wanted to answer a question from the audience about the prominent role of factory farming in producing AMR. During a week in which the UN’s recent report on climate change was still making headlines, it seemed bizarre to avoid such a relevant issue.” Philippa Simmonds

WHS 4
The final drinks reception. Photo courtesy of Ruth Gottlieb.

“On the plus side, the WHS was a great opportunity for networking, and it was interesting to attend talks given by different highly-ranked officials underlining the formal and political aspects of the conference. Many of the arguments raised had already been addressed throughout our master’s degree, which helped understanding but meant that I didn’t gain a huge amount of new scientific information.

Meanwhile, I observed that the conference was overwhelmingly attended by medical doctors/students, and there was a need for representation of more diverse professions within the field of GH.” Kevin Antunes Lopes

WHS 6
Keeping it lighthearted while representing KU. Photo courtesy of Julie Boelt.

“The idea of multi-sectoral cooperation was strongly communicated throughout the conference, but few clear examples of partnerships with smaller, non-profit/non-governmental organisations, particularly from the global South were mentioned. There was a clear need for younger people, with perhaps higher social consciousness, on the panels. The idea of developed countries being the saviours of the world’s poorest remained an unfortunate subtext to the event.

Dr Tedros, the Director General of the WHO, concluded the World Health Summit with a story of a young boy he visited recently whose life was saved thanks to improved access to health care. This was powerful because it showed a concrete instance of the success of GH initiatives. It was also powerful because of the emotion that swept over Dr Tedros, who wept as he told the story. Hundreds of audience members were clearly moved, some also to tears. A couple of hours later, at a different segment of the event, Dr Tedros gave the same speech with a similar emotional reaction at the same part of the story. A critical student can’t help but wonder, was his visit with the young boy so powerful that an experienced man of his position was so suddenly overcome by raw emotion…twice? Was this an attempt to capture the audience and the stakeholders whose involvement (and investment) is crucial for GH? Is emotion perhaps needed in huge conferences, to remind us of the goals of all this high-level debate? And therefore does it even matter if the tears were real or cinematic?” Dominique Leth-Sørensen

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