The Words of the Ladouce Family
Geneva, Switzerland -- The first day of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) High Level Segment meeting taking place in Geneva July 6-9 was highly informative and reported on many health-related issues. There was also room for emotion. But one will mostly remember the moral call for action by both Ban Ki-moon and Margaret Chan.
“I’ve got the conviction that the story of a woman is the story of humanity,” Sarah Omega Kidangasi said. She added, “It is truly heart breaking that the greatest event in the life of any woman sometimes turns out to be such a tragedy, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa."
Indeed something in her story reminds us of the first female tragedy, in the Biblical Eve, who would give birth to children "with sorrow." It was not easy for Sarah to take the floor and address hundreds of ambassadors and world dignitaries at the United Nations Palais des Nations, after speakers such as Ban Kin-moon, Margaret Chan, or Cherie Blair. But she did so well.
Long ago, Sarah dropped out school after a life of abject poverty, but the worst was yet to come. Her story tells us of a broken humanity. She endured the worst humiliations that a woman can experience, and her story put a face on many of the issues that were talked at length that day. People gathered from around the world to address pressing issues such as fulfilling the health-related Millennium Development Goals (improving maternal health is goal #5), the impact of the economic crisis on health programs, new partnerships to finance programs, etc.
Experts came up with figures, data, strategic plans, and sophisticated PowerPoint presentations. Sarah Omega brought none of these. But her story is at the heart of all the issues addressed in Geneva. At 19, Sarah was raped and got pregnant. During a difficult childbirth, the tissues of her body tore and did not heal. she had to endure a fistula for 12 years. “This is the most shameful condition for a woman,” she said. She talked about the uncontrolled leaking of waste matter, the constant smell of urine and feces, the social stigma, and the moral and physical hell that her life became. Fortunately, Sarah was operated on and has healed; she is now a dedicated traveler for the United Nations Population Fund, advocating for women like her. [For more information, click here.] Sarah’s story was one of the highlights of the day. She was not the only one to talk about fistulas.
Later in the afternoon, Natalia Imbruglia, a spokesperson for the Campaign to End Fistula for United Nations Population Fund, also took the floor. Natalia has been blessed abundantly and is a successful artist and singer. She was actually the last speaker of a day that had been highly informative but sometimes lacked this emotional dimension which makes a person think more deeply about life.
Natalia’s dedication to help women with obstetric fistulas showed that a woman who once had failed in everything and a woman who has been successful in many things can have much in common and meet as sisters on the world stage. This reminds us that globalization is not always the frightening phenomenon described by some circles. It is also the globalization of good will, people helping people. It is the globalization of fraternal love, to borrow a phrase from the Legion of Good Will, a Brazil-based NGO which was attending the ECOSOC meeting.
The morning plenary sessions were skillfully moderated by Mrs. Sylvie Lucas from Luxembourg, the current president of ECOSOC. She gave a general overview of the most urgent problems. If HIV/AIDS is slightly declining but not yet stabilized, and if child mortality is decreasing, the other health-related Millennium Development Goal (maternal health) is not doing well despite many efforts. She then introduced Ban Ki-moon, who spoke about a renewal of multilateralism based on universal principles.
In his address, the Secretary-General of the UN tried to give signs of hope. Indeed, several crises are occurring together (the food crisis, the energy crisis, and the financial crisis) and are having a devastating impact on social problems, especially public health. “The last pandemic," he added, "is the latest reminder of our vulnerability and mutual interdependence.”
Yet, a crisis should not bring us to despair and hopelessness. “Such challenges," he stressed, "demand our full collaboration -- all nations working together for the benefit of all people. They demand a renewed multilateralism based on universal principles and buttressed by resources, political will, and respect for internationally agreed commitments.”
He recommended a multisectoral approach to promote a greater health literacy, change attitudes, especially towards women and girls, and make full use of new technologies.
The whole day was an overview of many health-related issues. For those who are not familiar with many terms related to public health -- many young trainees were attending the sessions, and NGOs had sent many observers to become more familiar with terms -- much could be learned about notions such as health literacy, social determinants, and health-related Millennium Development Goals.
However, Mrs. Margaret Chan, director of the World Health Organization, made it very clear that the most important challenge is neither political, economic, or cultural. She stressed the moral factor above everything else. Emphasizing interdependence, just as Ban Ki-moon did, she used very harsh words to blame the greed and short-sighted policies that have caused the current financial crisis. “The poor people, those who are the least responsible for the crisis, are those who will suffer the most from it,” she stressed. “When money is short, healthy food is sacrificed. One will chose the cheapest way to feed a hungry stomach.” Other speakers reiterated this point quite often. However, in a strikingly different tone from the diplomatic discourse of the day, Chan forcefully said, “We are in a mess. In developed countries, people will lose their job or house; in developing countries, they will lose their lives.”
In conclusion, Chan urged world leaders and all health workers to strengthen the moral compass.
Another point which was often repeated during the whole day is that health is a universal human right. Urma Paets, the foreign minister of Estonia, reminded everyone that the definition of health is "a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity," according to the World Health Organization. If health is so defined, then it should not remain an unreachable privilege for a vast majority of people. Mr. Paets expressed concern that the financial crisis will not bring more protectionism. Echoing Ban Ki-moon, he expressed hope that the crisis will not have only negative effects but that it will stimulate a renewed creativity and new practices, smart investments, and better accountability.
Many good practices could be learned from the reports about the regional meetings that had taken place prior to this general meeting. We will briefly mention them in a coming report.
In the afternoon, the impact of the financial crisis was discussed by several brilliant panelists led by Mr. Pascal Lamy, director of the World Trade Organization. He was followed by Mr. Supachai Panitchpakdi, Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development; Murilo Portugal, Deputy Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund; and Joy Phumaphi, Vice President of Human Development at the World Bank and former World Health Organization Assistant Director. The last speaker on these issues was Ambassador Juan Somavia, Director-General of the International Labour Organization. All of them emphasized that this economic crisis is unprecedented because it is hitting the whole world and is the first crisis of globalization. Although they all agreed that the crisis is extremely serious and that so-called signs of “green shoots” should be viewed very critically, all these experts said that the crisis will force people to search for new values and better behaviors.
The last session of the day was about building new partnerships for health. Among the speakers, Mr. Philippe Douste Blazy, former Foreign Minister of France, explored four topics:
A tax on airline tickets, which could be used for development
The role of voluntary contributions of philanthropists (he mentioned the role of Bono)
The efforts of pharmaceutical companies
A new architecture of funding
Mr. Michel Kazatchkine, Executive Director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, stressed the role of community-based organizations, faith-based organizations, and the AIDS movement. "We should not consider drugs as commodities but public goods," he stressed.
Other speakers at this last session talked about their experiences of creating successful partnerships to curb various diseases worldwide. Among the speakers were Mr. Michel Sidibé, Executive Director of the United Nations Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS; Awa Marie Coll-Seck, Executive Director of the Roll Back Malaria Partnership; and Marcos Espinal, Executive Secretary of the Stop Tuberculosis Partnership.