Conference advocacy?

I often joke that I attend conferences for a living. In truth, it’s a lovely perq that comes along with the rather administrative task of coordinating JSI’s presence at some of the larger public health and technology conferences: Global Health Council, American Public Health Association, United States Conference on AIDS, International AIDS Conference, and this week, Women DELIVER. Most of the public health conferences this year are dealing with the idea of a ticking clock; with only five years left on the Millennium Development Goal counter, many countries are still far from their benchmarks. Largely, the global health community has been asking itself: What has worked so far? What are the best practices that have come out of the last ten years of development work? What are the barriers that are preventing us from going the rest of the way? And how do we overcome them?

Of course, these conferences are mainly attended by individuals who already know the answers to the key questions and are, to the best of their ability, trying to apply modern best practices to complicated health situations. High profile speakers are called in to reiterate what we already know, and by the time we board the plane home laden with conference booklets, reports, and shwag from the expo booths, the energy generated through the conference camaraderie is insufficient to tackle that to-do list:

  • Bring governments on board to commit resources to maternal health programs, monitoring & evaluation
  • Strengthen health systems to better provide opportunities for women and girls
  • Improve integration by building public-private and cross-sector partnerships
  • Increase use of technology to help address issues of medical human resources deficits
  • Mitigate cultural and religious barriers that prevent women from accessing the education and healthcare they need in order to change their situation

Errrr, yeah. I’ll get right on that…

That said, Women DELIVER may actually turn my previous stalemate experience on its head. For one, this conference already has an action plan. The cadre of strong women leaders who spoke yesterday are already backing up their inspiring words and speeches with actions. Arianna Huffington has opened her well-known online paper to continue the conversation from a surprisingly stellar Women Empowerment panel and keep the issue in the press. Christy Turlington Burns aired her film, No Woman, No Cry last night; more importantly, perhaps, she recently showed the film to 5 sold-out audiences at the Tribeca Film festival–audiences who probably attended for her celebrity, but came out learning about the global impact of maternal mortality. Christiane Amanpour and Ashley Judd are using their positions as a well-respected journalist and actress/activist to bring attention to maternal health on the global stage. Most notably, Melinda Gates announced yesterday that the Gates Foundation is giving $1.5 BILLION in grants for maternal health projects. For a full overview of key messages and summaries, visit the Ms. Magazine blog, K4Health’s summary of the first day–including a link to Women DELIVER’s action plan, or Women DELIVER’s own live blog of the conference.

As Director General of the World Health Organization, Margaret Chan, suggested yesterday, “Let’s walk the talk, and deliver a health system that supports our women.” I’m excited to see what kind of walking (or hopefully running) comes out of the next few days.