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World Health Summit – Are We New and Improved?

By Anneke Schmider
on October 24, 2022

I was fortunate enough to have just attended the World Health Summit! Berlin was a gracious host to this Summit, the first time the Summit collaborated with the World Health Organization as a joint sponsor. As a result, people came from around the world, committed to improving health as a global priority. It was a pleasure to watch so many people take the stage for the first time, as well as many ‘famous’ global health ‘celebrities’.

Being a Summit, and crowded at the breaks, I had the opportunity to bump into many amazing people. A particular highlight was meeting the Hon. Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand and head of UNDP, whose work on the Independent Panel for Pandemic Prevention, Preparedness and Response (IPPPR) has already shaped global discussions on how health systems need to be strengthened for future pandemics, and is likely to set a benchmark for many years to come. Not to mention, be the basis of many future academic studies! And I applaud the efforts of  Spring Gombe of Market Access Africa, who managed the opening ceremony, including several disruptive fire alarms, with substantial grace and humour!

It was fascinating watching the various global health conversations on stage, and on the side. Some discussions were new and emerging; however, many were mature and (let’s just say) unresolved. Focused on learning from past lessons, each topic was strongly flavoured with the experiences of the pandemic and was also shaped by a sense of ‘looking forward.’

Of course, there were also persistent (and usual) challenges to these global health discussions. Specific health interests still compete for space and voice. This creates fragmentation, and there was much discussion about ‘vertical’ programme alignment, as there has been for many decades. Discussions about global architecture resonated with concerns about competition and fragmentation between global agencies.

However, perhaps our greatest ‘global health challenge’ is our tendency to revert to our ‘old’ ways too easily, and too quickly. Women were at the frontline of pandemic response – so the small number of women participating in the opening session was disappointing. I also had the unfortunate opportunity to observe too many women being side-lined or talked over. I even watched as one senior woman, fighting to be heard, leaned in, and said emphatically: ‘It’s my turn now.’ Likewise, the way in which youth representatives’ contributions were treated (sometimes tokenistic) suggested that we still have a long way to go to ensure inclusive global debate.

With three high level political meetings scheduled in New York in 2023 focused on health priorities (universal health coverage, health security and tuberculosis), surely it is time to resolve these arguments in a global model that has an agreed and inclusive legitimising framework. Our questions heading to New York must not be: ‘Which agency is bigger, better?’ The questions instead must be: How can we unite our voices for greater effect? What shared message can we present? For this we need a new discourse framework. For example, how does health make economies and societies more resilient? How do we invest in health as an asset, not a cost? How does our work contribute to this? How are our global debates inclusive by design?

For those of us fortunate enough to be able to attend the Summit, it was an undeniable joy to meet in person after so long. However, the Summit also presents an opportunity for reflection. How much have we really changed? Are we open to new approaches or alternative answers? Or are we tied to old paradigms? And how do we create a vibrant intellectual environment that respects diversity and inclusion?

Looking forward to the next Summit, these are the things the global health community must truly address.

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