ITM / IHP Network | 10 years ago, Emerging Voices for Global Health   (EV4GH) started as an innovative “blended learning” training programme for young health researchers linked to the ITM colloquium in autumn 2010 and then, shortly after, also to the 1st global health systems research (HSR) symposium in Montreux, Switzerland. Although the character and governance of the programme – which soon turned also into a network – have evolved over the years, with ITM no longer in the lead, the health policy unit still considers EV4GH as a flagship activity of our unit. Ten years after its inception, it feels like a good time to reflect on the 10-year journey so far, and the road ahead.

Back in 2010, we still lived in a very different world. At the time, 5 years away from the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) deadline, health systems research was still trying to carve out a niche for itself, and ‘old dinosaurs’, mostly from the North, were still dominating global health conferences. It was against this backdrop that Wim van Damme and David Hercot incubated the idea  of Emerging Voices. The programme was intended as a skills building, leadership and individual capacity strengthening programme of young promising researchers, mostly from LMICs in the South. EV4GH was conceived in line with the ‘switching the poles’ strategy of the institute, and funded generously by the Belgian Development Cooperation (DGD). The aim was certainly also to bring some fresh air to global health conferences, not just through the involvement of young and vocal researchers but also via innovative formats (like Pecha Kucha and fishbowls, thus countering the notorious ‘Death by powerpoint’), and influence the global health agenda.

The health policy unit is also involved in institutional capacity strengthening / partnership programs, among others in Cambodia and Guinea, but unlike these, EV4GH has always largely focused on individual capacity strengthening. There are pros and cons of both approaches, obviously. By and large, though, EV4GH has been an extremely rewarding experience, not in the least for the young people themselves who now make up already 6 cohorts (and over 250 people) in total.

Since 2010 (i.e. the “Antwerp/Montreux” venture), EV4GH has taken place in Beijing (2012), Cape Town (2013 & 2014), Vancouver (2016) and Liverpool (2018), usually in sync with a global health systems research symposium. Now EV4GH is already gearing up for the Dubai (2020) cohort and programme, scheduled for early November.

Cohorts typically comprised between 30-40 young health researchers (as well as some other change agents, like activists, policy brokers, and even a few policy makers). From 2012 on, even if it remained a fairly flexible program, the stages of a typical EV4GH program became more or less fixed. Respectively, the call, EV selection, the (2-3 month) EV distance coaching stage, the (7-10 day) EV F2F program leading up to a pre-conference (sort of a ‘safe space’ for the EVs to showcase their work), and then the participation in the real (big) symposium.

Over time, EV4GH managed to turn ‘switching the poles’ into reality, including in its own governance. After 2014, ITM was no longer in the lead, but became just a partner institute, together with other partner institutes (Beijing university, UWC, UCT, Liverpool school of Tropical Medicine, …) and the EV secretariat, hosted by IPH Bangalore. The latter, together with a representative EV governance team (comprising of elected EV alumni from the different (WHO) regions), were key in ensuring successful ventures since 2015.  EV alumni now have full ownership of the program. In 2015, EV4GH also became a Thematic Working Group (TWG) of Health Systems Global, the society that  organizes the biannual global health systems research symposia.

For many EV alumni, EV4GH is more than a network, it’s almost like a “second family”, as some of their testimonies signal.  EVs are friends, easily reach out to each other when they want to touch base on some issues, collaborate on blogs and other projects, and some are even role models. Arguably, a number of EV alumni have also gone off the radar – it appears that for some, indeed, EV4GH is only about the training programme, not really about the network which they can join afterwards, but I guess that’s unavoidable for individually focused training programs.

Emerging Voices tend to share a strong passion for health equity, and have over time also managed to bring some new ideas and angles to global health debates, whether on gender, decoloniality, planetary health, …  Every Emerging Voice “emerges” in different ways, capitalizing on his/her own strengths: some are wonderful presenters, others are very savvy on social media, are great policy brokers or hardened activists, still others write great papers. And quite a few of them actually do all of these! Some EVs remain strongly nationally rooted, and focus on being change agents in their own settings, while others navigate different spaces, including the global level. In fact, many testify that the EV programme was actually a key catalyst for them to become also a global voice, providing them with the confidence and the tools to do so.

The Health Policy and Financing unit kickstarted EV4GH and continues to support the EV4GH venture, the EV secretariat and EV governance team. All in all, we’re very proud of what EV4GH has meant for the broader HSR community and global health in general, over the past ten years, and look forward to the future.

A few personal reflections

I have been myself involved in EV4GH from the start, in various roles (not the least coaching of bloggers) and it’s been an amazing journey. In recent years I’ve been the EV liaison with ITM, as part of the EV governance team. A few additional reflections perhaps on the programme and network:

EV4GH pretty soon become a strong ‘brand’ in the HSR community and managed to have an impact at symposia (with some remarkable presentations, including at opening and closing plenaries), but also through lots of blogs, savvy tweets (or even vlogs), and of course great presentations and posters. Many of the EV alumni have also moved on by now in their careers and have started to take up key roles in other HSG TWGs, or collaborated on special issues and supplements. Some EV alumni even became global health rock stars themselves!   EVs have certainly also had an impact on the formats used at the HSR symposium, and have not shied away from highlighting the gap between some of the high-profile venues (like in Montreux) and the fight for the most vulnerable.  In the broader global health world, Emerging Voices is less known, with some notable exceptions.

In spite of EV4GH having carved out a niche, it’s been difficult to make this venture really sustainable. Fundraising has remained a struggle over the years, and as the programme has become more popular over the years (with ever more people applying, it seems), funding has, unfortunately, not evolved likewise.  To some extent this was also due to the fact that EV4GH wanted to keep its own “DNA” and independence.

As was the case for most EV alumni, some people I met over these 10 years I will always remember as friends, role models, or even more (like Asmat Malik, who sadly passed away in 2018, and embodied for me the man I would perhaps have wanted to be, if I could).

Over the years, EV4GH has strongly benefited from enthusiastic local hosts, a dedicated EV secretariat in Bangalore and the dynamism of a great number of EV alumni, and this largely on a volunteer basis. That obviously includes the EV governance team, since 2015.

For young people from all over the world, every time again it proves a wonderful experience to come together for a few weeks, ahead of a global conference, and be exposed to each other’s health research & policy experiences from all over the world, while getting ready for the conference (via both skills & content training).

It’s clear that, ideally, many EVs would have liked a more long-term mentorship scheme – that wasn’t possible, unfortunately, the follow-up stage has always been a bit of a weakness of the programme: resources tended to focus on the EV programme (i.e. the 6-stage cycle) itself, linked to a symposium. After the symposium, mentorship has remained relatively limited and that remains a gap, certainly in the broader HSR community.

It’s equally clear that a largely volunteer-based effort, while having clear advantages in terms of flexibility, creativity and dynamic, also has its limits, in terms of professionalism, as well as turn-over – especially of the focal points of various ventures. Usually, ‘running the show’ once proved enough for these focal people.  The EV governance team – only partially re-elected every few years – has however ensured a level of continuity in terms of institutional memory, both of the programme and network.

Now in 2020, and 5 years into the SDGs, we live in a very different world. Although our planet is in turmoil, Emerging Voices very much look forward to the next decade. EV4GH will no doubt continue to change and evolve, in line with a rapidly changing world. I certainly hope that Emerging Voices will also play their role in conveying a sense of urgency to the health systems (and broader global health) communities.

The SDG ‘decade of action’ and planetary health ‘pivotal decade’ require no less.

Autor: Kristof Decoster, EV governance liaison with ITM, health policy unit
Contribution to the Annual Report 2019 of the MMI Network