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A stronger voice of civil society at the World Health Assembly?

A stronger voice of civil society at the World Health Assembly?

Many civil society organizations interested in “making WHO work better” (title of a Global Health Watch discussion paper, 2006, available as PDF) were frustrated by the way the World Health Organization limited the role and impact of civil society at this year’s World Health Assembly. But we could have done better ourselves...

After the WHO announcement that there would be no “NGO side events” allowed, many organizations reacted immediately, such as Tim Reed of Health Action International, who sent a letter to the WHO DG: “I am dismayed and disappointed at the decision not to allow NGO Briefings (side events) in the evenings during the week of the assembly, and I am now writing to ask you to reconsider this decision. (...) I ask you to reconsider the decision to deny side events which only serves to silence the voice of NGOs in official relations with WHO, and on whose collaboration the WHO depends.”

This lead to an immediate reaction of WHO, proposing a compromise formula: “There will be one conference room reserved for NGO side events for the evenings of 17 May thru till 21 May 2010 (17.30-19:30). Should the organization you represent wish to avail itself of this opportunity please complete the attached form. Preference will be given to meetings co-sponsored by several nongovernmental organizations in official relations with WHO, and which deal with provisional agenda item 11 on technical and health matters.”

This “call for tenders” resulted, as expected, in a competition between NGOs, creating some winners such as the MMI Network with its side event on the WHO Code of Practice on the international recruitment of health personnel – and many losers. This is nothing new, by-the-way: “There are a wide range of organisations competing with each other to disseminate their materials and having their voices heard.” (GHW discussion paper)

The World Health Assembly – no easy place to get heard

In an open letter to the WHO DG, Robert Weissman and Peter Maybarduk of Public Citizen denounced the WHO policy as bad governance: “This retrograde policy harks back to an era of secretive and exclusive international gatherings. It is completely out of step with prevailing norms at multilateral international organizations. The WHO should be a leader in openness and transparency, not a laggard behind institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.” (quoted from IP-Health archives)

After the Assembly, Health Action International concluded: “There was a general feeling of dissatisfaction among civil society observers regarding increased limitations on NGO participation in the World Health Assembly. Aside from the suspension of the NGO privilege to hold technical briefings, which was announced before the WHA, there also seemed to be more difficulty in participating in the committee sessions through the NGO intervention mechanism and HAI was unable to deliver its submitted interventions on either of the agenda items. HAI values its status of official relations with the WHO and we hope that the ability for civil society organisations to engage fully in the WHA will be protected.” (quoted from HAI Global media release)

Dialogue with WHO – and better CSO coordination

“Making WHO work better” is still the right slogan if you agree that it makes sense to strengthen the role, authority, capacity and accountability of WHO to improve global health and health equity. And the World Health Assembly is definitely the right place to raise the voice of civil society.

Therefore we should not wait until the next WHA to renew the dialogue with the WHO and their Civil Society Initiative about better access of civil society organizations to the World Health Organization  and the World Health Assembly.

On the other hand, we have to do our homework, and, in fact, we already know how: “A process to coordinate civil society participation (at the WHA) could be much more effective and efficient. One CSO could be tasked to monitor the programme of the World Health Assembly, identify key issues and help plan more coordinated civil society participation six months in advance of the World Health Assembly.” (GHW discussion paper, 2006)

A feedback form added to that GHW discussion paper suggested to:

  • “develop a system or forum to allow discussion and promote coordination amongst CSOs around a set of 5-10 topic areas based on the WHA agenda;”
  • “host a meeting immediately prior to WHA for CSOs to organise joint work and coordinated lobbying during the WHA.”

Well, this year, the civil society meeting proposed in the discussion paper took place, such as last year already: On 14-15 May, just prior to the World Health Assembly, CSO representatives gathered in Geneva, some 500 meters away from the WHO headquarters, for a two days “Civil Society Workshop on Global Health Governance” (see PHM website).

I do not complain about the workshop itself; the inputs and discussions were highly relevant and interesting, but I strongly regret that the civil society organizations participating in the workshop did not take the opportunity to share their lobbying strategies and to prepare themselves better for the WHA (it is the World Health Assembly!) in order to act in a more coordinated and finally more effective way.

And I remember a “NGO briefing in preparation of the WHA” organized by WHO’s Programme on Partnerships and UN Reform last year, three weeks before the Assembly, in order “to provide an opportunity for questions and answers on the issues and process related to the Assembly” (invitation). – The event was boring, not because the WHA representatives did not do their best, but because they were not challenged at all by the partcipating NGOs: no questions, no discussions. 

We will have to invest (again) in “making joint CSO advocacy at the WHO work better”. And this is a real challenge, due to the civil society organizations’ and networks’ limited capacities, inconsistent advocacy agendas, divergent strategic choices regarding cooperation and coordination...

The Medicus Mundi International Network just made a first step to get more involved: “We will focus joint advocacy on the WHO” is one of four main elements of the Network Strategy 2011-2015 adopted at this year’s Annual Assembly of MMI (see PDF) - in Geneva, in May 2010, during the World Health Assembly...

Thomas Schwarz, Executive Secretary
Medicus Mundi International Network
June 2010


The agenda of this year's World Health Assembly included, among other items, the implementation of the International Health Regulations (2005); the global strategy and plan of action regarding public health, innovation and intellectual property; the monitoring of the achievement of the health-related Millennium Development Goals; and the draft global code of practice on international recruitment of health personnel.

As an organization in official relations with WHO, the Medicus Mundi International Network was invited to appoint representatives to the Assembly and to make statements under items concerning technical issues.

The MMI Network focused its joint activities on advocacy related to the WHO code of practice on international recruitment of health personnel - which was finally adopted by the Assembly.  We prepared a statement to the Assembly and organized, together with other civil society organizations, a side event on the implementation and monitoring of the code (see documentation).

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