The World Health Organization's (WHO) flagship event of the year, the World Health Assembly (WHA), is currently underway. Delegates from around the world are in Geneva to determine the path forward on the world's most pressing global health challenges as well as WHO's efforts to modernize.
The WHO has a clear choice: engage in constructive partnerships with a wide array of stakeholders or continue down a path where key stakeholders are – for all practical purposes – excluded, ultimately undermining the WHO's own goals. If the WHO is going to tackle the range of critical global challenges it faces, private sector and civil society expertise and resources can't be left by the wayside.
This year's meeting comes in the midst of the biggest WHO restructuring in recent memory. In January, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the WHO, outlined his vision for reforming the organization to achieve its Triple Billion Target as part of a five-year strategic plan – ensuring one billion more people benefit from universal health coverage, one billion more are protected from health emergencies, and one billion more improve their overall health.
We applaud the ambition to achieve these targets, but success will partly depend on whether the WHO can be more inclusive. The world desperately needs a WHO that has the resources to match Dr. Tedros's vision. It's often observed that health is too important to be left just to the Ministry of Health. The corollary is even more salient: that the WHO needs to work closely with non-state actors at all levels to make a practical difference in the complex ecosystems that enable healthy populations around the world.
The private sector should be part of these solutions, engaged early and often in both the development and implementation of public health strategies. Working with and mobilizing private sector actors means all stakeholders can benefit; from innovative efforts on research and development of new medicines, vaccines, diagnostics, and medical devices, as well as collaborations on new methods of health service delivery and global experience in establishing efficient logistics and supply chain management to name just a few.
In his opening address to the 72nd World Health Assembly, Dr. Tedros noted that the WHO is taking a new approach to partnerships, one that takes advantage of the comparative advantages of those partners. At the working level, this continues to be a challenge – in part because the public health community lacks experience working with industry, just as many in industry lack experience engaging with the public sector.
Dr. Tedros's call to action is important: the best way to achieve the goal of developing and implementing partnerships is to begin with a clear understanding of objectives and relative roles and responsibilities. No one questions that the WHO is and must remain a leader in driving better global health for all based on independence and integrity, but there are many ways to cooperate with the private sector and other non-state actors to complement and enhance the work that the WHO and its member states are doing to achieve the goal of universal health coverage.
There are many successful precedents for this kind of collaboration. The Accelerating Access Initiative, a collaboration of research-based pharmaceutical companies and UNAIDS, WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA, and the World Bank, helped to transform the availability of antiretroviral treatment for HIV/AIDS in the years following its establishment in 2000. GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, has achieved remarkable progress in improving immunisation rates for millions of children through a public-private partnership including both innovative companies and developing world vaccine manufacturers. And the Global Fund, like GAVI, has partnered closely with the private sector to help countries in their fight against AIDS, TB and malaria.
Billions of people have a stake in the results of this week's deliberations in Geneva. An openness to explore new opportunities for partnership – with the private sector and others in civil society – will ensure that the WHO can lead a successful transformation in how the world responds to the health challenges ahead.
Louis Galambos is Research Professor of History and co-Director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise. Jeffrey L. Sturchio is CEO of Rabin Martin, a global health strategy consultancy, and a visiting scholar at the Institute. Both are co-editors (with Ilona Kickbusch) of the book 'The Road to Universal Health Coverage: Innovation, Equity and the New Health Economy'
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