What does “multisectoral” really mean?

Visiting the different organizations this week has been a tremendously rewarding experience and really solidified my learning from last week.While the World Health Assembly focused more on setting goals, making promises, and ensuring accountability for government action, the distinct organizations focused on how these goals, promises, and accountability measures will be implemented at the country level.

There were a lot of misconceptions I had about the role of the organizations that were cleared up. For instance, WHO is a mainly technical organization, whose role in access to essential medicines may be more related to data and information collection rather than the actual distribution of medications. To give a specific example, I met with Dr. Inthira Yamabhai, who is a WHO technical officer currently collecting information on the frequency of compulsory licensing use globally and the possible implications of the TPP.

Meanwhile, the World Economic Forum seeks to create public-private partnerships, for example with pharmaceutical industries, to achieve more “win-win” situations for both the public and private sectors. I was very surprised to learn that World Trade Organization is also very linked to health, particularly access to medicines, because of its role in the conception of the TRIPs agreement and subsequent Doha declaration, giving flexibilities for countries to break drug patents for the sake of public health.

Common themes that have emerged throughout the different visits are the key role of partnerships, working multisectorally, capacity building, and sustainability. At the WHA, these buzz words were thrown around at almost every single event, with the assumption that everyone knew what this meant. This week, these ambiguous ideas were backed up with concrete evidence such as how to involve the government, NGO’s, industry, donors, civil society, and especially the population being served in discussions of how to develop country-specific programs.

One of the key lessons I learned is that it is vital to not only address the exclusive health issue at hand (i.e. medication shortages, lack of vaccinations, high prevalence of diseases), but also to develop strong health systems that will sustain even after the NGO/outside help has left. Furthermore, I learned that a lot of this global health work requires more than just a deep understanding of the health issue and its context (culturally, politically, economically); it also needs interpersonal relations, compromise, and patience.

Amy Nham is a Master of Public Health student at the University of Southern California.

The USC Institute for Global Health organizes an annual trip to the World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland, as part of the course “Global Health Governance & Diplomacy in Practice in Geneva at the World Health Assembly.”  This year, a group of 12 students are  embedded as delegates to NCD Alliance members at the 69th World Health Assembly May 23-28. 


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