WHO DG Forum: Outside Looking In

I’m trying to watch a live-stream of the World Health Organization’s Candidates’ Forum, part of the selection process for WHO’s next Director General. The audio drops-out and the image is blurred as the broadband is too slow. Six candidates have been nominated by WHO Member States (governments), and over the last two days they have been outlining their visions to, and answering questions from, the 196 Member States.

As always, the WHO process completely excludes the participation of civil society in general, and in particular, of the millions of poor people whose lives depend on public health programs and WHO’s leadership of global health. We have no role whatsoever in this election process — only 196 Member States have a say on who will be the next WHO Director General, perhaps the most important job in international health. No vote, no online consultation, no ‘town hall meeting’, nor anyway that the Candidates and civil society can exchange views or questions. “But it’s live-streamed!”, the WHO proudly announces.

While I try to watch each of the candidate’s presentations, with their noble words about the importance of engaging with civil society or listening to community voices, it seems as if I am standing outside the glass doors of their regal meeting room in Geneva, straining to follow through muffled audio and blurred visuals.  Who ever becomes the next Director General of WHO will need to understand that ’community engagement’ is more than just allowing folks to stand outside looking in. The next WHO election process in 2021 must be more inclusive and open, including the meaningful participation of those being ‘left behind’ and their civil society organisations. It’s a human rights obligation that the World Health Organization signed on to in 2003.  It’s clear, not blurred.

Can we achieve SDG3?

Can we achieve the health targets in Agenda 2030? Yes, but not without civil society

The Sustainable Development Goals are ambitious, including Goal Three: “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.” Achieving healthy lives for all by 2030  will demand nothing less than a paradigm shift. A recent Globalization and Health Commentary by Julia Smith at Simon Fraser University, Kent Buse of UNAIDS and Case Gordon of IMAXI Cooperative – argues that it is possible, but with one huge caveat – civil society engagement is essential.

Civil society organizations (CSOs) have demonstrated over and over again that it is possible to adapt to new challenges, meet the needs of those most vulnerable, and beat the odds. For example, there was a time, not too long ago, when policy-makers and medical professionals said it was not feasible to provide anti-retroviral therapy (ART) to people living with HIV and AIDS in Africa. CSOs proved them wrong by delivering effective treatment and then demanding access to ART as a human right. Through their moral arguments, CSOs forced a dramatic scale up of ART around the world, which continues to this day. More recently, civil society activism, in partnership with , the governments of Malaysia and Australia , has resulted in tobacco-carve out in the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement. This is a crucial step towards greater recognition of the need to protect public health from harmful corporate interests.

Some of those who question the potential of the 2030 Agenda argue that global institutions and campaigns lack legitimacy and accountability. Civil society engagement can mitigate both criticisms. Civil society delegations to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria and to the UNAIDS Programme Coordinating Board (PCB), have brought lived experience into policy debates and strengthened connections with affected communities. Numerous case studies attest to CSOs improving the responsiveness and effectiveness of global institutions and processes. These include the Ottawa Process to Ban Land Mines, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the UN Convention on the Rights of Person with Disabilities.

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