April 13, 2012
Students and other members of the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) community gathered in the Leadership Studio in Kresge to watch a global simulcast from Berlin sponsored by TEDx, an offshoot of the popular TED Conferences, on April 5, 2012. Afterwards, alumna Meghna Chakrabarti, SM ’01, co-host of Radio Boston on WBUR, led an HSPH panel in a discussion of the themes raised by the speakers. One of the topics on everyone’s minds was how to move ahead with the global health and development agenda in an era when funding is drying up.
In his opening remarks, Dean Julio Frenk observed that the large investments in global health seen in recent years may be coming to a close. Donor countries are pulling back on investments in the face of their own fiscal crises. But now is not the time to cut back, he said. Investments in health, which have led to successes such as the global eradication of smallpox, show concrete results not only in lives saved but in contributions to economic growth.
HSPH student government representatives Syed Kashif Mahmood, MPH ’14, and Melissa Shive, MPH ’12, introduced the TEDx simulcast. One of the Berlin speakers, Jeff Chapin, a mechanical engineer and product designer at IDEO, spoke about designing easy to assemble latrines and handwashing stations in Cambodia. He described giving up preconceived notions he had about the project and learning to listen to the local people’s concerns. Sven Giegold, a member of the European Parliament, spoke about how collective action helped bring about broader adoption of energy from solar, wind, and biomass in Germany.
A video documentary played during the event showed a group of kids in a poor neighborhood in India who took it upon themselves to make sure that all babies received polio inoculations. They created the first-ever map of the neighborhood and documented every household with the zealous preciseness of public health researchers.
International development consultant Theo Sowa called for more African women to be included in the conversations being had about them. She recalled attending a conference on women and HIV/AIDS that did not include a single woman speaker. People always talk about African women as victims, and that’s a problem: “People don’t ask victims for solutions,” she said.
Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, closed the simulcast by making a passionate case for including contraception on the global health agenda. It has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of women’s lives around the world, particularly in countries like Nigeria, where just 10 percent of the population uses birth control, she said. “We can insist that all families have the opportunity to learn about contraceptives, and have access to the full variety of methods so they can decide which one is right for them. This is the clear goal: universal access to the birth control that women want. To achieve that goal, rich and poor governments alike must make birth control a priority,” she said.
Speaking after the simulcast, Dean Frenk said that the language of development must change from that of assistance to that of global solidarity and “co-responsiblity for shared problems.” The mindset that everyone’s problems affect everyone else is an argument against cutbacks to programs that are achieving results, he said.
Michael Chu, senior lecturer of business administration at Harvard Business School, and Jennifer Leaning, Francois-Xavier Bagnoud professor of the practice of health and human rights at HSPH, spoke about the power of the world’s bottom four billion as both a market and a political force that we ignore at our peril. “The way that the world can change for the better rests on our ability to listen and empower people to take charge of their own lives,” Leaning said. “When people are shown that they are cared about, that creates a power that leads to change.”
– Amy Roeder
photo: Aubrey LaMedica