Past lessons teach us the way to a healthier future

In Myanmar, WORTH groups enables women to build transparent savings with credit groups that empowers them with financial literacy to start micro-enterprises. Photo by: Pact

“In the long history of humankind, those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”

Charles Darwin’s famous words are the foundation for helping people live healthier lives across the world. We are better together, in partnership, than alone.

But partnership is a big word. A sometimes complicated word.

Some view partnership as a buzzword. Others believe partnership doesn’t hold a lot of weight because it appears in every other sentence. Everybody’s doing it!

But partnership is more than a buzzword. More than an empty word. Working together — across sectors, geography and organizations — is how we will win the fight against poverty and help make a better tomorrow for millions of poor and marginalized people across the world.

In 2010, the U.S. Agency for International Development launched USAID Forward, an initiative to address the global challenges and achieve results that outlast assistance. A key component of USAID Forward is partnerships. One of the largest contributors to development assistance in the world recognizes the only way to achieve long-term, sustainable development is through collaboration with and support of the institutions, private-sector partners and civil society organizations present in nations around the world.

We are not hanging our hopes on new, unproven ideas. Community education and engagement have been key in the fight against HIV and AIDS.

In more than three decades of fighting the epidemic, the tide only changes when communities are empowered and enabled to develop local solutions for getting the care they need. This is just as important as having the right services available and accessible.

People do not seek care for a host of reasons: from a lack of information on available services to the inability to get to a health center or to pay for services, to the fear of being stigmatized or discriminated against.

By working together with communities, everyone becomes aware and talks more openly and honestly about HIV and AIDS and related health issues. It becomes a community issue: one that matters to them and their future.

HIV and AIDS have enabled us to make important inroads in working with and learning from communities. We should extend this same resolve and effort to other chronic and noncommunicable diseases that impact the health of communities.

Take, for instance, women’s cancers. Breast cancer was the most common cause of death among women worldwide in 2012 and cervical cancer the fourth most common cancer among women in 2012, with more than 500,000 cases. Similarly, one in three adults worldwide has raised blood pressure — a condition that causes around half of all deaths from stroke and heart disease — and 1 in 10 adults has diabetes. At the public health level, efforts are being made to ensure physicians and nurses are trained to screen for and treat NCDs and that the right equipment and technologies are in place.

But as the response to HIV and AIDS teaches us, success depends on more than having the right services available and accessible. Turning the tide depends on working together with local communities.

Not enough is currently being done to link back to the communities. To raise their understanding of and awareness about NCDs — how to prevent them, when to suspect them, when to seek medical attention, how to talk about them, and how to ask questions about them.

Working with existing HIV and AIDS networks, as well as other health education campaigns, we can integrate community awareness of NCDs into existing programs, building off existing efforts rather than working in parallel. This is not a far-fetched linkage. Women who are infected with HIV are at a higher risk for cervical cancer. Systems that have been developed to track HIV patients on treatment could be extended to diabetes patients.

One way we’re exploring this at Pact is by working in partnership with others to build the capacity of local cancer organizations to carry out prevention and awareness campaigns. Through existing community programs and established local partnerships, information and messaging about cancer prevention and awareness would be incorporated into HIV, AIDS and other health education activities.

Another way development organizations can continue to improve people’s health is by leveraging their current partnerships. One example of such a program is Pact’s women-led savings and loan program, WORTH. Globally, WORTH has reached more than 365,000 women across 14 countries. The small groups of 20-25 women meet regularly and actively participate in HIV, AIDS and health education, depending on their local context and needs. In areas with high incidence of women’s cancers or other NCDs, Pact can leverage these networks to deliver information and awareness.

No one can do it all, but through partnerships with local communities and those who work beside them, we can deepen our impact and promote empowerment. Working together, we can achieve significant improvements in people’s health and lives — moving ever closer to our ultimate goal of poverty eradication.

Want to learn more? Check out the Healthy Means campaign site and tweet us using #HealthyMeans.

Healthy Means is an online conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Concern Worldwide, Gavi, GlaxoSmithKline, International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Johnson & Johnson and the United Nations Population Fund to showcase new ideas and ways we can work together to expand health care and live better lives.

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

About the author

  • Kerry Bruce

    Kerry Bruce is Pact’s senior director for global health and measurement. She has worked in the public health sector for more than 20 years. Since joining Pact in 2011, she has spearheaded Pact’s annual Measuring the Mission Report and has moved the organization towards mobile technology use and centralized measurement systems.