Highlights from “Plenary 3: Effecting Change, Advancing Global Health”

April 20, 2010  • Josh Weissburg

This morning kicks off with a series of “table talks” over breakfast. One of my colleagues notices, as we look over at the table discussing maternal health, that it is all men at the table. It’s a great little example: you can’t predict who will be passionate about an issue. As the third plenary kicks off, the moderator asks, “What is the diagnosis?” Global health is important, not just because “disease knows no borders,” but because health outcomes dramatically affect everything from education to women’s economic empowerment. The prognosis, says Jeff Sturchio of the Global Health Council, is to recognize the progress that has been made and continue to work on multiple fronts.

Tom Scott of the Gates Foundation begins with a powerful video from the Living Proof project detailing dramatic successes in global health: malaria cut by 93% in some areas, smallpox eradicated, 50% reduction in other infectious diseases. This stands in stark contrast, Scott notes, to the 75% of leaders who believe little progress has been made in reducing incidences of disease. Scott points to the way New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof urges the global health sector to “take a page from Madison Avenue:” the old stories, told with statistics-laden descriptions emphasizing overwhelming problems, need to give way to clearly articulated solutions that tell success stories about individuals. He shows a video of Grace, a mother whose child was saved by specific the interventions of a local clinic supported by philanthropy. These stories are about leverage: more understanding, funding and better decision-making. This is not to say that stories replace good data; they explain and communicate what is learned.

Several panelists cite new, much-improved data and studies conducted with that data showing dramatic improvements in maternal mortality. These studies should help donors “double down on the successful investments that have been made,” says Sturchio. There are so many cases in which good ideas arise within a community, receive seed capital from philanthropy, then gradually (if they are well-documented) begin to receive public support. But it takes time.