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

By Kristof Decoster
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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