Global health leaders including WHO's Margaret Chan call for teamwork in the face of an inward political turn

By Catherine Cheney 09 February 2017

Margaret Chan, outgoing director-general of the World Health Organization, speaks at the event, “Global Health: Next Decade, Next Generation.” Photo by: Catherine Cheney / Devex

Margaret Chan, outgoing director of the World Health Organization, is urging greater collaboration among global health organizations in the face of a challenging political environment in the United States.

Speaking at an event hosted by the University of Washington’s Department of Global Health on Wednesday, Chan warned that the political climate made the work of public health more important than ever in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, which she described as a “corrective strategy” to the root causes of inequality.

“In a post-truth and post-fact world, views that appeal to emotions and personal beliefs are more influential than objective evidence based on science,” she said. “We need to defend science and evidence like never before.”

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Global health organizations attending the event — which marked the university department’s 10th anniversary — echoed this call for collaboration. They described coalitions they have built across sectors, countries and organizations as more necessary than ever in the face of an inward turn in politics and growing concerns regarding the direction of U.S. policy under President Donald Trump.

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“There are forces of retraction to recede into our shells and cut off our ability to work together across national boundaries to improve global health — and they are part political,” said Jay Inslee, governor of Washington.

The state has become a hub for the global health sector, home to organizations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, PATH and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

Inslee said that Washington state would continue its work to address global challenges, with or without support from Washington, D.C. But the conference reflected that no single organization, city or country can tackle these challenges alone, and Seattle organizations are putting partnership at the center of their plans moving forward.

“I think the day of superman and superwoman is gone,” Chan said. “It’s all about alliances, teamwork, and collaboration going forward.”

The organization of the event reflected the need for an interdisciplinary approach to global health work.

“We need to break out of disease-specific silos and bring together multiple areas of expertise to solve the complex problems we are facing today, like pandemic preparedness, planetary health and antimicrobial resistance,” Gabrielle Fitzgerald, founder of Panorama, told Devex.

Liberia’s minister of health Bernice Dahn speaks with Devex about how the global health community might change its approach. Via YouTube

This was a theme returned to by speakers throughout the day.

“It has to be by definition a big tent in order to address the very complex challenge that we have here,” said Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He pointed to the launch of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, as an example of how that might be done.

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Participants met at a pivotal moment for many organizations, as well as for the direction of global health. Several institutional attendees were celebrating 10 year anniversaries, but also considering the way forward.

One of them, the Washington Global Health Alliance, will see their Founding Executive Director Lisa Cohen step down at the end of March. Many applauded her work connecting the dots between organizations in Seattle’s global health community.

Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Gates Foundation, said that she and her husband are prioritizing investments that can create catalytic change as they consider the legacy they want to leave. Many of those investments have benefitted Seattle-based institutions, including the University of Washington and the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, which last month received an award of $279 million from the Gates Foundation to continue and expand its work improving health evidence.

Chris Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, on what’s needed to improve health evidence. Via YouTube

Discussions also framed broad challenges that will impact the future of global health, again crossing boundaries to include issues not traditionally encompassed by global health discussions, such as climate change, war and international debt.

Affecting many of these issues, the current political climate in the U.S. loomed over Wednesday’s discussions. One speaker, Ala Awan, an Iraqi national who is regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean at the World Health Organization, nearly missed the event due to Trump’s travel ban. A mention of the Washington judge’s decision to call a national halt on that ban received a standing ovation from the audience.

The impact of the global gag rule was also addressed. In a panel about the impact of environmental change on human health, panelists argued that family planning is inextricably linked to environmental impact and population growth — highlighting that global challenges cannot be tackled in isolation.

For more Devex coverage on global health, visit Focus On: Global Health 

About the author

Catherine cheney devex
Catherine Cheneycatherinecheney

Catherine Cheney covers the West Coast global development community for Devex. Since graduating from Yale University, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in political science, Catherine has worked as a reporter and editor for a range of publications including World Politics Review, POLITICO, and NationSwell, a media company and membership network she helped to build. She is also an ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute.


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