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Geneva: Why the World Health Assembly matters more than the G8

Commonwealth Health Ministers meeting
Commonwealth Health Ministers meeting

It is the World Health Assembly (WHA) this week in Geneva. Nouria Brikci and I are here using the opportunity to try to influence the health ministers to adopt evidence-based policies to improve access to health for the poor.

The WHA is seen by some as an ineffective UN meeting; huge, with all countries having a say, and therefore risking stalemate and lack of ambition. They contrast this with the G8 or G20 where smaller goups of (rich) countries make decisions on behalf of the whole world.

However, the WHA has much greater legitimacy than the G8/G20 on account of its democracy. Unlike the rich countries’ clubs of the G8 and G20, all countries, however poor, have the right to speak out and to vote. The decisions that are made here are binding on the World Health Organisation, which is mandated to deliver the resolutions.

The G8/G20 has no delivery mechanism which is why many of the “promises” it makes are broken by the time the leaders get home. After the World Health Assembly, the ministers go home and start to reorientate their health policies in line with the decisions they have made. Of course, you won’t read much about the WHA in the mainstream press, but I often think we ought to spend more time and energy influencing it, rather than getting drawn into the media circus that the G8/G20 generates.

The WHA will be discussiing a resolution on progress of the health-related Millennium Development Goals. This is, of course, Save the Children’s number one issue. While health ministers have to fight their finance ministers for increased funding for health, the decisions they make about what to do with their limited funds are also crucial. In particular, we want to the health ministers to encourage more governments to take the important step of removing fees for use of maternal and child health services.

Many countries have done this already, including Sierra Leone a few weeks ago, but there remain opponents to this measure. Some genuinely believe that user fees have a place in raising funds – something we think the evidence disproves. Some influential countries are worried about the ideology of free healthcare when their own systems operate differently. Save the Children strongly believes that healthcare is a right and should be available based on need, not ability to pay.

Find out more about how Save the Children is making a difference in healthcare provision for children.

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