Civil society asks for more engagement with WHO member states

Civil society and other nonstate organizations share their recommendations ahead of the 74th World Health Assembly. Photo by: Glories Francois / ABACA

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Civil society and other nonstate organizations have asked for more engagement with World Health Organization member states, and for WHO to help facilitate their involvement in the drafting of resolutions for the World Health Assembly.

“CSOs and the non state actors have technical expertise and also much lived experience that's really relevant to the resolutions that are getting negotiated, and it would be a benefit to CSOs and member states if there was more involvement and more engagement of CSOs in the negotiation of those resolutions,” Eleanor Blomstrom, senior program officer at the International Women’s Health Coalition, said during a dialogue with WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

The recommendations were made at the conclusion of a three-day dialogue last week that was meant to improve their engagement with WHO teams and member states. For the past few years, some members of civil society have asked for more meaningful participation in governing body meetings, voicing their concerns and frustrations on the seemingly shrinking space for them at the World Health Assembly.

During the annual World Health Assembly, representatives of nonstate organizations are given only a few minutes to share their perspectives on a particular issue, and in 2020 these were reduced to providing written statements.

“Many times we make statements at WHO meetings, but we really do not have a precise way of knowing how the member states are taking on board our recommendations...”

— Grace Bricalli, senior public policy manager, European Society for Medical Oncology

In last week’s informal meetings, they were able to interact with, ask questions, and offer their perspectives to WHO officials, and government representatives from countries such as Germany and France on issues such as WHO’s work in health emergencies, mental health preparedness and response, access to treatments, the health workforce, social determinants of health, and WHO’s sustainable financing.

But some CSOs argued that only a few member states participated during the sessions. If the informal meetings were to have an impact on the WHA agenda, they said member states need to be more involved, and the reports for discussion at the WHA need to be available in advance.

Having member states in future informal meetings gives the network a chance to discuss its recommendations and provide member states the necessary tools and resources that can help them achieve their goals, said Grace Bricalli, senior public policy manager at the European Society for Medical Oncology.

“Many times we make statements at WHO meetings, but we really do not have a precise way of knowing how the member states are taking on board our recommendations, or if the statements that we post on the WHO website are actually being read by them, and how many of them are reading it,” Bricalli said, during a dialogue with WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Blomstrom, who recommended for WHO to share drafts of resolutions put forward to the WHA, and facilitate briefings with member states on those resolutions, said CSOs and nonstate actors are “mostly excluded” in resolution negotiations.

Some of the participants also recommended doing a similar informal dialogue at the WHO regions to expand civil society participation in the meeting and ensure those from low- and middle-income countries could also join.

WHO’s response

WHO has formed an internal group that would track the implementation of recommendations to the organization, Tedros said in response to questions on how to make sure the proposals from the informal meetings will be implemented. But he also said WHO can discuss the implementation of the proposals through regular engagement with them, which could come in the form of working groups.

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He said he will encourage member states to join in future meetings, and considered the idea of creating a forum for nonstate organizations to provide inputs to draft resolutions before they are discussed by the WHA, but with the caveat: the final decision to include their perspectives is with member states.

“I'm really sorry that [member states’] participation was minimal ... but as you rightly said, the timing was not really convenient. You didn't have the documents in advance and member states’ participation was also minimal. I think we have to improve [on] that, otherwise, if we can't improve this. I don't think … we will achieve the objectives that we have set for ourselves,” Tedros said.

Meanwhile, Tedros also said WHO will look into the proposal that health ministers receive a report on the health of the global health care workforce before they start their deliberations at the World Health Assembly, as well as how to involve the voice of senior citizens in future health discussions.

About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.