As we go to press, the rampant spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa is in the news. People worldwide are talking about it, and calling for action to control the outbreak.
It reminds us of 1985, when international reporting on the Ethiopian famine spawned a new awareness of health challenges in low-income countries – and a new desire for action. In response, the music community came together to produce “We Are the World,” a song that inspired the world.
Around the same time, global awareness of the HIV pandemic rose – and led to a call to action and funding for HIV prevention, care and treatment.
A new era of citizen activism, engagement and advocacy for global health began.
Today, nearly 30 years later, the way we invest in global health has evolved, and so has citizen activism. In most wealthy countries – and a growing number of middle-income countries – aid is commonly accepted as a valuable humanitarian, political and security investment.
Our approach, however, lags behind.
We have unwittingly built a system in which global health advocates compete for funding allocated to specific diseases: HIV, malaria, tuberculosis…the list goes on. There are countless powerful coalitions that advocate to lawmakers, at conferences and in the media.
Too often, though, this successful advocacy does not carve out investments to address the conditions that make long-term improvements untenable – inadequate health workforces and weak health systems. Until we address the need for stronger systems and a stronger global health workforce, vertical efforts may lead to results – but those results may be short-lived and inefficiently achieved.
The attraction to funding diseases is clear – results are more easily measured and communicated than long-term investments in capacity building, health markets and the health workforce. And measurable impact is essential to persuading lawmakers, who need positive stories and numbers to share with constituents.
At PSI and IntraHealth, we are constantly fine-tuning our efforts to deliver measurable short-term results and long-term impact. We address multiple diseases and health challenges while supporting systems that deliver high-quality care.
To end extreme poverty and ensure universal health coverage, we must build stronger health systems and a robust health workforce. We need long-term, coordinated and efficient investments.
We need an evolution – maybe a revolution.
A revolution would require a converging of various organizations, coalitions and initiatives, stronger leadership from health ministries and other national stakeholders, and streamlined coordination among all global health actors.
We need to change the public and political discourse. We need to ensure that when we devote our attention to singular causes and crises, we also have in-depth conversations about our increasingly interconnected global health system.
The Ebola outbreak exposed the need to better invest in health systems. It also demonstrates that health systems can’t function without well-trained, supported health workers.
After all, we still are the world. So let’s begin another new era in global health. And let’s start by focusing on health workers.
Director, Communications and Advocacy
Photo: PSI trained midwife Mononoko Bientot Traore works for ProFam, PSI’s social franchise in Mali.