This post is co-authored by Kate Dodson, Vice President for Global Health Strategy at the United Nations Foundation and Loyce Pace, President and Executive Director of the Global Health Council

The side event on civil society engagement with the World Health Organization (WHO) at the 71st World Health Assembly was standing room only, illustrating non-governmental partners’ long-standing eagerness to advance global health alongside WHO. And Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus sent a clear signal right back to the organizations in the room—speaking to the diverse array of civil society leaders, but more importantly, staying to listen.

“Without partnership, we cannot really move forward,” Dr. Tedros said. And by all accounts so far, he means it.

This positive energy surrounding WHO’s newfound commitment to collaborating with civil society to shape health policy and delivery comes at a pivotal moment for global health. Member States at the assembly just passed Dr. Tedros’ ambitious “triple billion” General Programme of Work, which aims to provide 1 billion more people with universal health coverage, keep 1 billion more people safe from health emergencies, and promote health and well-being for 1 billion more people.

Dr. Tedros himself has called on WHO to better learn from and work with organizations at all levels of the organization, especially in-country. An independent task force facilitated by RESULTS and the United Nations Foundation and supported by the Global Health Council has been meeting since early this year to assemble contributors, solicit opinions, interview experts, and craft strategic recommendations to deliver to Dr. Tedros and his team.

As he said, “Nobody can question the benefits of partnership between WHO and civil society.”

Now, the task team is actively exploring how strategic and systemic partnership across the organization might work. Dr. Tedros acknowledged that interpretations of WHO’s Framework of Engagement with Non-State Actors, or FENSA – adopted a couple of years ago to identify parameters for WHO relationships with stakeholders across multiple sectors – in some instances can create a barrier to collaboration with WHO. He also urged a shift in mindset, with the grasstops embracing their roots. Civil society, Member States, and WHO are working toward the same important, difficult objectives – and no single entity can achieve the Sustainable Development Goals alone.

“The value that civil society…brings is our ability to hold governments and other institutions accountable” said panelist Ms. Kwanele Asante, a patient advocate and Chair of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Cancer Prevention and Control in South Africa. Civil society groups keep governments honest, advocate for patients, deliver services through community connections, and serve the most marginalized and remote populations. For instance, faith-based organizations in some African countries provide primary care services to 40-70% of the population, especially in remote areas, according to Amparo Alonso from Caritas Internationalis.

Moreover, civil society groups can leverage their own expertise to inform government policy. Innovation is another key asset among civil society; collaboration is critical to “achieving social enterprise at scale” as PATH head Steve Davis described it. And in the face of fast-moving, deadly crises like the Ebola outbreak emerging in remote regions the Democratic Republic of Congo, the support of local partners who understand the terrain and the community literally saves lives.

The World Health Assembly itself told the same story of an institution opening its doors to a cacophony of voices and perspectives. Global Health Council (GHC) brought more than 100 civil society delegates to Geneva. This group represented multiple sectors such as academia and nongovernmental organizations, and several issues areas – from global health security to noncommunicable diseases. Moreover, a majority of them were women and hailed from 18 countries, including 12 low- and middle-income countries. Groups like GHC’s delegation are excited at the opportunity for constructive dialogue. As Women Deliver’s President and CEO Katja Iversen said: “We’re not competitors, we’re not just shouting at each other. We want the same thing.”

The momentum coming out of the World Health Assembly should carry the task team to the summertime launch of its recommendations, and into the fall as WHO’s important regional committees meet.

Now, as WHO embarks on a transformative new agenda, we call on the global health community to take Dr. Tedros up on his offer and make your voices heard. Together, we can move farther. Together, we can move faster. Together, we can do more.


[Photo: WHO/Laurent Cipriani]