“Not just training for the future, but participating in the present” were the words of Dr Wilson, President of the World Medical Association, at the Closing Ceremony of the recent Pre- World Health Assembly (WHA) youth workshop, organised by the IFMSA. In many ways, his words reflected exactly what we were doing in this three-day workshop, which involved over 30 young people interested in health advocacy. With students from all over the world gathered in Geneva, covering disciplines such as medicine, pharmacy, dentistry, law, and public health, we had come together to prepare for the upcoming WHA.
The workshop involved a combination of keynote addresses, expert panels on five important WHA agenda topics, and small working groups on these issues for advocacy preparation. These five topics were non-communicable diseases (NCDs), human resources for health (HRH), maternal and child health (MCH) and sexual and reproductive health (SRH), the post-2015 agenda, and research and development (R&D). Throughout the three days, we split into groups to prepare focus points and briefing papers on these issues, which we would use throughout the WHA to discuss with member states, and interventions, which we would submit for presentation to the Plenary.
Group Photo of the participants on the Pre-WHA Youth Workshop
But first, we had a range of excellent introductory lectures. The opening address was given by the wonderful Dr Sigrun Møgedal, who spoke about the importance of youth involvement in global health. She inspired us all by promoting the key differences youth can have in this field, most particularly, by being able to take risks, be strong, and demand change. We talked about the difficulties in defining global health, but ultimately the one that resonated with me the most was simple: “global health means…we’re all in this together!” This was followed by a lecture on global health diplomacy, given by Professor Ilona Kickbusch of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies. She gave an excellent overview of the current global health agenda, and the need for global governance for health. An introduction to the World Health Organisation (WHO) was provided by Dr Mihály Kökény, former Chairman of the Executive Board, and Dr Andrew Cassels, current Director of Strategy. Dr Cassels spoke about WHO reform and highlighted the fact that one of the WHO’s key roles in creating normative standards and public goods is often not recognised, resulting in criticisms of the organisation as a whole. Dr Kökény shared the lessons he learnt while at the WHO, including the importance of preparing for all scenarios, consulting with experts on topics, and discovering the vested interests of those you are working with.
Workshop days two and three were made up of panel sessions for each of our focus areas. An attempt at brevity prevents me from going into detail about the speakers and issues discussed in each, but we were fortunate to have interesting and experienced panellists who were able to provide new perspectives on each topic. A highlight was to hear from Dr Lola Dare, of CHESTRAD, who spoke about the need for reform in medical education, and emphasised the need for social accountability as a component of training for all health workers. Similarly, Carlos Dora, of the WHO Department of Public Health and Environment, spoke about the importance of health in the post-2015 agenda – as he pointed out, “health is central to development; as a precondition, beneficiary, and indicator.” Perhaps the most useful session of the workshop however was an advocacy simulation exercise, coordinated by representatives from the Graduate Institute, World Vision and Save the Children. This forced us to play various roles in the WHA process – member states, non-governmental organisations, and the WHO Secretariat – in order to understand how the lobbying process works at the assembly and think more critically about our role as an NGO agitating for change within the system.
So, after three long days, we concluded the pre-WHA workshop with a greater understanding of the issues on the agenda, a renewed focus on interdisciplinary collaboration in health, and concrete goals for our advocacy throughout the assembly itself. The inaugural pre-WHA workshop was most definitely a success, and will no doubt see an improved recognition of the role for informed and coordinated youth involvement in global health.
By Freya Langham