Are there too many global health meetings, summits & declarations?

By on November 5, 2018


Last week this short tweet from Devi Sridhar went viral, well, at least among global health twitterandi 🙂  : “Is it just me who thinks #globalhealth has too many meetings, summits & declarations- and not enough of the actual substance of getting things done?”

While I’m probably not best placed to ponder this question – given that the weekly IHP newsletter focuses to a considerable extent on these very global health meetings ; this topic probably deserves a doctoral research project; and many have already weighed in on Twitter or elsewhere, from various important angles, I’d like to focus here on one specific angle. What does this abundance of global health meetings and “must-attend” global health summits say about ‘planetary health’?

Well, at the very least that ‘planetary health’, in spite of all the rhetoric, isn’t a big concern yet among the ones who are calling the shots in global health policy, as well as many in global health who consider themselves ‘key influencers’ (to borrow a term from Instagram) and thus roam the planet to have their say from Astana, over Berlin, London, to Tokyo, New York, Oslo (this week) and then some.

Dr Tedros might call air pollution the new tobacco, and arguably, he does send his regards sometimes to conferences via a video message (as he still can’t clone himself), but nevertheless, I bet his own carbon footprint is among the “Cero coma cero cero cero cero cero cero cero cero cero cero cinco” on this globe : )   From a holistic SDG health perspective, in times of accelerating climate change, that’s more than a bit weird for the global health boss, even if you’re – justifiedly – hunting for partnerships with diverse stakeholders, and you want to make sure that WHO remains “the big spider in the global health spider web”. Not every visit is as vital as going to the DRC to take stock of the Ebola efforts there.

As one of his advisors put it a bit defensively (but also bluntly) some time ago, ‘do I need to stay on a Swiss mountain top then for the rest of my days?’ Hell, no, even if in my humble opinion not much is wrong with spending some time for meditation on a Swiss mountaintop : )  But you have to admit that all this fancy ‘walk the talk’ stuff at NCD related summits (whereby you can usually see participants do somewhat funny exercises during an NCD ‘walk the talk’ break, on a beat), feels a bit “politically correct”, taking into account that so many of the participants will typically have taken planes to get there in the first place.

As I explained before, I personally believe in rationing one’s flying behavior, among other options and alternatives. Frequent fliers & planetary health don’t go together, with the current technology. They still very much seem to go together in global health, though, in spite of the fact that everybody knows ‘the hard facts’ when it comes to climate change. In times when populists are being singled out for not paying much attention to “the facts”, this is not something that  boosts the global health community’s credibility, if you ask me.

When it comes to alternatives, I also quite believe in Madhukar Pai’s recent stance (related to TB conferences but actually valid for most global health conferences) – TB Conferences: We Must Do Better  “to hold them in high-burden countries, engage affected communities and support participants from LMICs to lead the agenda”.

Within Europe, though, for example, to go to Geneva, using other ways of public transport (trains, …) should be a no-brainer. It still isn’t, including in my own institute. Partly, I guess, because this choice also has implications for the entire (still largely neoliberal) scientific “business” model. A ‘slower’ way of doing science (or, like in my case, knowledge management) seems indispensable to make this happen, and indeed a different (post-capitalist) mindset. In a world where outputs, deliverables, … are omnipresent, however, and global competition is also in the global health community a must, many feel they can’t afford an extra day for travelling by train.  Time is even more an issue than price, for many. So to save time, they’d rather take “disruptive” and dirt-cheap airlines, even feeling annoyed when exploited luggage handlers suddenly start striking. Oops ! 🙂

So, clearly, ‘to fly or not to fly’ (or rather, fly just a bit) has ramifications that go way beyond just one’s carbon footprint.

To conclude: now that there’s a holistic health SDG “Global Action Plan for healthy lives and well-being for All”  (or at least the first stage of it), whereby key global health actors promise to work together as much as possible, I think it’d be great if WHO could also take the lead to align and coordinate global health events & summits in the SDG health era. I understand every disease community & institute wants to advocate for its own (very important) cause and/or plant its global health flag, but if the global health partners involved in this action plan take planetary health a bit seriously (and I hope they do), they should trim this impressive landscape of global health events & summits and look for more synergies.  Sooner rather than later.


@drTedros: over to you. I’m sure you’d get some more sleep too if this were to materialize ! : )

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2 Responses to “Are there too many global health meetings, summits & declarations?”

  1. Ronald Labonte

    Agree completely. I fly too much, feel horribly about it, fund as much offsetting as possible (following advice not from airlines but from advocacy environmental NGOs), and know it’s not enough. The one rationing decision I have made: pretty much the only international travel I now undertake is travel directly related to funded research studies. (Whether such research is always necessary is a different matter.) I’ve largely given up on conferences. If an invited keynote speaker I will try first to use technology rather than air travel, and if not possible will only agree to the invitation if it aligns with a heap of other committed activities in the same region. I do not submit abstracts to conferences or events that are, by all reasonable thought, academic options. For quite some time my approach to global health conferences and meetings has been along the lines of: either I will not learn anything new that I can’t get from the computer on my desk, or I will learn something new but when I return realize I am already so over-committed that I can’t make use of the new knowledge (or any new networks such meetings might engender). Net result: more time in place, less time in transit, healthier me, slightly less unhealthy planet.

  2. Neil Pakenham-Walsh

    Yes, there are too many global health meetings. These are hugely expensive to organise and exclude those who cannot afford to go to them. They are increasingly untenable environmentally. Part of the solution is to shift investment away from physical meetings and to support virtual global health discussion forums like Healthcare Information For All (HIFA). such forums support in-depth interdisciplinary communication in multiple languages. We will always need occasional physical meetings, but we could be doing so much better to communicate and collaborate – not just a few days a year at a meeting, but 24/7. Join HIFA to experience a more inclusive, more diverse, and more engaged global conversation on global health.


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