Opinion: A multisectoral approach can bolster resilience for people and planet

In the midst of the pandemic, the interconnected nature of human and environmental health is no longer questioned, writes Dr. Vik Mohan. Photo: Blue Ventures / Garth Cripps

In 2005, I was part of a small team working for the U.K.-based marine conservation organization Blue Ventures, partnering with coastal communities in southwestern Madagascar to help rebuild their fisheries. As we listened to the stories of fishers and their families, it became clear that providing support on fisheries management alone wasn’t going to be enough. Communities needed more holistic support, addressing the huge unmet need for health care that we had identified alongside their need for a sustainable livelihood.

Two years later, we were integrating health care into our conservation and fisheries program. This felt like a bold step, one that simultaneously excited and worried us. Addressing the health needs we had identified felt really important, but would this be seen as mission drift? Would we be able to demonstrate a conservation benefit? Could a conservation organization really build the capacity to become a credible and impactful health care provider?

Today, while in the midst of a pandemic caused by a virus that likely jumped from a population of wild animals to humans, the interconnected nature of human and environmental health is no longer questioned. In fact, the World Health Organization’s first prescription for a healthy, green recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is “Protect and preserve the source of human health: Nature.”

This awareness of the interconnectedness of human and environmental well-being underpins a growing understanding that our most pressing global challenges require multidimensional, multisectoral solutions.

A focus on multisectoral solutions has shaped the way I think about conservation. For the last 13 years, Blue Ventures’ community health program has been an integral part of our holistic approach to working with coastal communities. As the health of communities improves, we have seen how they are better able to lift themselves out of poverty and engage in the long-term work of fisheries management and marine conservation.

The complex nature of the problems we are addressing means that we owe it to the communities we serve to develop approaches that will most effectively solve these problems.

Here are three of the most important lessons we have learned about how to work in this multisectoral way:

1. Think honestly and holistically about the problem you are trying to solve, identifying all of the important underlying drivers. You may not be able to address all of these in the program you build, but this will at least open the door to developing a multisectoral approach if this is required.

It will also allow an honest appraisal of whether you are likely to solve the problem in its entirety. Witnessing poor health within the communities we partnered with in Madagascar, for example, we could see how our efforts to help rebuild fisheries might not succeed if we didn’t address these health issues. Integrating health services into our program not only felt like the right thing to do, it was clear this would support our mission.

2. Step outside of the comfort zone of your sector and harness complementary expertise to solve complex, multidimensional problems. Often this will be achieved through collaborating with specialist partners, who may have ways of working that are very different from your own. Those in the health sector may agree in principle that they cannot improve health in the context of a worsening natural environment, for example.

However, nurturing a partnership from this position of shared understanding, one that provides a multisectoral solution, can still be difficult. How do you ensure effective geographical overlap between the management of a specific landscape or seascape and the delivery of health services for an administrative region, for example? Will there be a tension between the need to collect baseline socioeconomic data before starting an initiative and the need for a rapid response to a climate-related shock?

Building a unifying vision and integrated program of work with partners, based on shared values and respect for each other’s contribution and with buy-in from the whole team, can provide the foundation for navigating these differences. Field-based staffers need to be adequately engaged, offered cross-sectoral training, and given the opportunity to identify for themselves the value of these partnerships.

3. Even if your program is well underway, stay open to new information. Keep listening — for unintended consequences, unexpected synergies, or added value.

Part of our Focus on: People and the Planet

This series explores how climate change and other planetary imbalances impact the rising trend of human inequality. We look into the potential solutions to eliminate inequality and support a healthy planet.

As a program becomes more complex, the likelihood of interactions between different components of the program increases, and unless you are looking for these interactions, you may not see them. Useful insights or observations could come from anywhere, making it important that all of those involved — be they community members, field-based staffers, or external stakeholders — have an opportunity to share their observations.

This approach needs to extend to how you evaluate your program. Ensure that your evaluation methodology is able to do justice to the richness and complexity of your work and can capture how your intervention leads to the results you are seeing, as well as measuring its impact.

Our own evaluation showed that while communities reported many benefits associated with improvements in health — such as being better able to earn a livelihood, greater food security, and a greater sense of empowerment — this did not automatically lead to more sustainable fishing practices. This has prompted us to ensure that as the health of community members improves, they are provided opportunities to engage in a livelihood that reduces pressure and reliance on natural resources.

Having seen how this multisectoral approach has enabled communities to better respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, I am more convinced than ever of its importance. Not only does it support us in our mission, but it also helps us to build resilience.

Community resilience is being supported through a combined health and livelihoods response to the pandemic, the community health service is becoming more resilient through our efforts to strengthen the health system, and ecosystem resilience is supported through our fisheries activities. Also, because we are better able to navigate both health and environmental shocks, and therefore better able to continue working, Blue Ventures is more resilient as an organization.

Life would definitely be simpler if we stayed within the familiar confines of our separate sectors. However, the complex nature of the problems we are addressing means that we owe it to the communities we serve to develop approaches that will most effectively solve these problems, approaches that are resilient enough to withstand whatever challenge we will face next.

This focus area, supported by the U.N. Development Programme, explores how climate change and other planetary imbalances impact the rising trend of human inequality and vice versa. Visit the Focus on: People and the Planet page for more.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Vik Mohan

    Dr. Vik Mohan is a practicing doctor in the United Kingdom and director of community health at Blue Ventures Conservation. He is the founder of Blue Ventures' community health program and architect of its health-environment approach to conservation. Having witnessed firsthand the benefits of working in this multisectoral way, his work now focuses on supporting other organizations to replicate this approach.