Although #ECTMIH2017 was starting only at 5 pm with a grandiose musical opening ceremony in the all the more grandiose Elisabeth center, a few students and some more professors were already rushing to the Institute of Tropical Medicine (ITM) building on Nationalestraat as the clock rang 1 pm on Monday. What were they all so excited about at a time they should have been digesting their mashed potatoes from Karibu (everyone who visited ITM knows the institute’s canteen loves mashed potatoes) with a well deserved break for, after all, they’ve all used consequent amounts of energy in preparing #ECTMIH2017, gathering the Emerging Voices or just getting psychologically ready for the exciting and challenging talks to come. So what were they all doing here ?
As a pre-event of #ECTMIH2017, Be-cause Health and the Medicus Mundi International (MMI) network decided to hold a small mass to the community of converted health experts : Health cooperation beyond aid – a reflection amongst Belgian platform members and (international) partners. The subject didn’t seem to be the kind that could shake 40 people out of their post lunch lethargy but the debate soon became quite interesting as the audience didn’t shy away from putting forward difficult questions.. Panelists from NGOs working at different levels, from different global health networks, together with representatives of governmental agencies reported about their diverging approaches to global health and the challenges to their legitimacy : working with consenting governments, working where governments are fragile, working with multiple experts, building a triangle between the private sector, government and civil society, and so on. Some felt there was nothing new in any of this, a bit of a ‘so what’ moment so to say. “Aren’t you preaching to the converted already”, as a member of the audience nicely put ? “Why don’t we hear about the other side of the story in a conference supposed to rise above simple aid towards collaboration?”, questioned another critique.
As always, it is only when reunions culminate that ideas abound. Strikingly, the panel debate failed to venture beyond the classical aid dilemma despite the goodwill of experienced panelists and strong push from the audience. Hence it appears that moving the focus of discussions from aid to a systematic analysis of the potential and the inherent challenges of collaboration is harder than we think. Good news remains that it is on everyone’s agenda. As for the necessity of reaching out rather than the usual inward-looking approach in the aid community, this is yet another challenge even experts could not find an answer to. The inherent tension between being a professional and an activist, the dilemma between the requirement to produce results and the desire to foster nuanced and complex research, and the difficult balance between being a health professional as well as a political theorist and a marketing expert are felt more and more strongly as we accumulate evidence and our work shifts from a purely scientific perspective to a political one subject to public approval.
These are all challenges professionals in the field of global health are facing today and will still face tomorrow – and I mean it in the figurative sense but just as well in a literal sense as #ECTMIH2017 will tackle such issues from October 17th to October 20th. The conference is in full swing by now. The meeting did nonetheless rally panelists and the audience around the necessity to reach out to society and especially the youth, as “you are of a certain age and so am I” (said a panelist to another). The need to proceed with an introspection of our own systems was also defended by several participants : we need to look at ourselves first, for we are not even a good example, we need to have a coherent system if we want to promote global health and development, and the problems happening ‘there’ happen ‘here’ just as well and should not be neglected. Finally the need to make civil society, governments and private actors cooperate perspired in most of the arguments even if no actual members of civil society where present this afternoon to discuss with us their perspective on the necessity of collaboration in global health. Hopefully #ECTMIH2017 and its diversity of nations, professions and experts will take the debate further. The bigger mass is happening now. Do not miss it. There might be some heretics among the crowd.
Note after a few days at the conference: this debate continued (with a Tuesday morning plenary and an afternoon session). The picture is gradually getting clearer. Health cooperation beyond aid, while not easy to conceive, is gradually taking shape. It won’t be easy to change mindsets at institutions and organisations, though.