Happy International Women’s Day!

Today is International Women’s Day (IWD) and the official theme for this year is “Equality for women is progress for all.”

The origin of International Women’s Day dates back to the early 1900’s and now every year on March 8, people around the world rally together to commemorate and support women. International Women’s Day is not only a time to celebrate achievements, but also a time to reflect on the progress made and call for increased changes. From women’s rights and gender equality to abuse and sex trafficking, various social, political, and economic issues concerning women are highlighted and become points of discussion (and even protest) around IWD.

The Millennium Development Goals call for the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women and during the IWD opening ceremony at the United Nations today, Hilary Clinton, known for being a champion of women, said “women and girls and the cause of gender equality must be at the heart” of the UN’s agenda to promote development around the world. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon echoed her sentiments, saying in his message, “This International Women’s Day, we are highlighting the importance of achieving equality for women and girls not simply because it is a matter of fairness and fundamental human rights, but because progress in so many other areas depends on it.”

This plays nicely into the ongoing debate on the post-2015 development agenda. We all know there are major issues around the access, quality, and availability of health services to women in developing countries, and that these issues are often further complicated by cultural and religious norms. I think it’s safe to say that although IWD is only one day a year, the discussion on women’s rights as a core component of global development will continue. It is essential.

Here’s a roundup of some IWD 2014 content in case you missed it:

“The fastest way to change society is to mobilize the women of the world.” — Charles Malik

What does International Women’s Day mean to you? Tell us in the comments below.

PAHO Call for Applications: Edmundo Granda Ugalde Leaders in international Health Program (LIHP)

PAHO’s Unit of Human Resources for Health, Bioethics and Research is pleased to launch the call for applications for the Edmundo Granda Ugalde Leaders in international Health Program (LIHP) 2014.  As you may be aware, this Program has a long tradition in the Organization, from its inception in 1985 to its current decentralized modality offered through the Virtual Campus for Public Health. To date, 270 persons from 36 countries have participated in the virtual decentralized modality of the LIHP, including program and project directors in health and other ministries, government personnel responsible for international relations and international cooperation, PAHO/WHO country office staff, partners from other international agencies, sub-regional integration bodies and NGOs, members of the Cuban Medical Brigades, and others.

The LIHP 2014 will strive to broaden knowledge and contribute to discussions regarding universal health coverage from an international health perspective, in recognition of its importance in the quest for health equity. The Program plans to facilitate debate on this issue, bringing together regional and global experts as well as promoting the development of country projects related to the same. Additionally, and taking into account the PAHO Strategic Plan 2014-2019 and the myriad challenges facing the Region, the LIHP will continue to support the analysis of other topics, including chronic diseases, food security, health diplomacy, and access to medicines, among others.

We invite you to disseminate information on the program in the attached brochure. Additional information including eligibility, application procedures and program requirements are available here.

For any questions, please see below for contact information:

Edmundo Granda Ugalde Leaders in International Health Program
Department of Health Systems and Services
Pan American Health Organization
525 Twenty-third St., NW
Washington,DC 20037-2895
Tel: (202) 974-3803
Fax: (202) 974-3612
email: INTLHLTH@paho.org

How will a trade agreement – the TPP — impact global health?

Guest post by Mary Anne Mercer, Senior MCH Advisor for Health Alliance International and the IH Section’s liaison with the Trade and Health Forum. Mary Anne spoke at a recent activist rally in Seattle on January 31st about public health concerns related to the TPP.

Only six months ago, when the TPP, or the Trans-Pacific Partnership, was brought up in discussions, even well-informed activists generally gave blank stares.  TP what?  But in recent weeks it’s been the subject of increasing news coverage, along with exposure to the so-called fast track authority bill that would grant President Obama authority to sign the agreement without prior Congressional review.  Although extensive negotiations on the TPP have been going on in secret over the past several years, as information about the TPP becomes better known, activist groups around the world have organized to oppose it. Just what is the TPP, and why do we care about it?

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a “trade” deal (but encompassing many other areas of corporate rights) among 12 countries of the Pacific Rim, including the United States. Official discussions are held behind closed doors without public information or input, and without input from our elected representatives in Congress, so little is known about the specific terms of the agreement.  However, WikiLeaks has published two chapters over the past few months detailing regulations concerning intellectual property and the environment. We have good reason to expect that the TPP will ratchet up terms that are prominent in existing trade agreements that have been signed between individual countries. So although only the negotiating committees, which include about 600 diplomats and corporate representatives, know the exact terms of the deal, we have substantial cause for concern.

National and international groups concerned about global health have voiced opposition to many terms of the agreement, believing that they would affect the health and quality of life of people around the world if enacted.  Some of the main health-related concerns about the TPP include:

  • Restrictions on individual countries’ abilities to pass and enforce laws protecting public health. Through a mechanism known as Investor-State Dispute resolution, corporations would be entitled to sue sovereign governments for passing laws that ‘restrict trade’ – even public health measures such as restricting tobacco advertising on cigarette packaging, which the Australian and other governments are now facing.
  • Intellectual property laws that would set up barriers to accessing generic medicines and other health commodities (including AIDS drugs), thus dramatically increasing their costs. By extending the already lengthy duration of patents and other corporate protections, Big Pharma will have an even stronger hold on the economic gains to be made from health problems around the world.
  • Detrimental effects on equity, including the distribution of income and other resources.  There is good evidence 20 years after NAFTA that poverty and inequality have increased in Mexico and wages in the US have stagnated.  The promises of NAFTA have not been kept.

But the TPP is far from a done deal.  Many progressive groups, including a number of labor, environmental and community organizations, as well as APHA’s Trade and Health Forum, are working to oppose the TPP and the Fast Track bill.

Sen. Harry Reid, Majority Leader in the U.S. Senate, recently indicated that he is not interested in having the Senate vote on legislation granting Fast Track Authority this year. There is no question that Reid’s decision is a result of mobilization of voters across the country. We need to continue to educate and inform as many people as possible about the content of the TPP and the negative impact it would have on jobs, the environment, and on public health in the US and globally.

CSIS Event: The Launch of the Global Health Security Agenda

What: The Launch of the Global Health Security Agenda
When: February 13, 2014 from 3:00pm-4:30pm (EST)
Where: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1616 Rhode Island Ave NW, Washington, D.C., 20036
RSVP: http://www.SmartGlobalHealth.org/GHSAgenda

Please join us as Dr. Thomas C. Frieden, Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Ms. Laura Holgate, Senior Director, WMD Terrorism and Threat Reduction, National Security Council, discuss the administration’s launch of the new Global Health Security Agenda at 3:00pm on Thursday, February 13, at CSIS in the 2nd floor conference room. (Click here to learn more.) It is a timely opportunity to hear directly from them about the GHS Agenda’s genesis, key elements and future implementation.

It is also the occasion for the NGO sector to engage with Dr. Frieden and Senior Director Holgate and add their voice. Independent scientific, security and health experts will offer their perspectives on the GHS Agenda, including how they might in the future best contribute substantively to it. On the dais, kicking off that conversation will be Deborah Rosenblum, NTI, Kavita Berger, AAAS, Tom Inglesby, UPMC, and Nigel Lightfoot, CORDS. We are delighted that their respective organizations are, along with CSIS, co-sponsors of this event.

This event will be webcast live at: http://www.SmartGlobalHealth.org/Live.

Celebrities and aid: the ongoing debate

This was cross-posted to my professional blog.

The aid and development blogosphere loves to debate (and often hate on) celebrities lending their names to aid. Whether it is starting their own charities or becoming ambassadors for existing ones, there is no dearth of commentary on whether celebrities help or hurt the cause, whether they have a place stepping into the fray, or whether they are worth the hassle or the cost of keeping them on payroll.

After a reporter from the Telegraph painted a painfully ignorant picture of Elizabeth McGovern on her World Vision-sponsored trip to Sierra Leone (who was subsequently tarred and feathered by aid commentators here and here) in December, the issue was in the public eye most recently when Oxfam and actress Scarlett Johansson parted ways over the latter’s affiliation with SodaStream, a company that makes machines to carbonate drinks. This week, a smug and witty editorial in the Guardian made ample reference to the former story when commenting on the latter, and threw in references to handful of other stars that have made names for themselves in the world of development charities. It is an interesting piece that explores the relationship (and occasional conflict) between celebrity sponsorships of charities versus consumer goods.

Upon closer inspection, however, it seems to me that the question of “Are celebrities good for aid?” is a somewhat complicated question, much like, “Does aid work?” Any aid commentator to whom that question is posed will (after rolling their eyes) explain that there are many different types of aid and thus no one single answer to that question. Throwing Elizabeth McGovern or Scarlett Johansson in the same category makes as much sense as comparing either or both of them to George Clooney, Madonna, or Bono.

Should celebrities start their own charities? I am going to go with probably (or even definitely) not. This was painfully obvious during last year’s fiasco surrounding Madonna’s visit to her project in Malawi, or Oprah’s school in South Africa.

It seems logical to me that the advice to zealous well-intentioned do-gooders of “don’t start your own NGO” should go for celebrities as well: there is already an over-abundance of them, some of which are well-integrated into your target community, so putting your name and/or funding on something that already works. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

But should charities bother with celebrity sponsors? As far as I can tell, that question should be answered by a cost-benefit analysis. Sure, it’s painful for those of us who are immersed in aid and development to see a charity like World Vision put so much funding into a visit for a celebrity who is kind of an airhead, but the general public would probably be more forgiving of her ignorance – if they learned about it, which they probably won’t. If it helps World Vision raise more money or their profile, then from their perspective it is certainly worth the investment, and are we right to hold it against them? The Guardian editorial cites research that explores the impact that celebrity engagement has on media coverage and social values. One study, instigated (ironically) in part by Oxfam, argues that “campaigning by charities brings the risk of promoting individualistic and consumerist values at the expense of collective action and citizen engagement.” On the flip side, other research shows that celebrities can raise the profile of otherwise neglected issues if they work through well-established frameworks (i.e., George Clooney in Darfur). There is a lot of commentary on whether charities are promoting the “right values” by slapping famous people’s faces on their ads, but their primary concern isn’t to change the way the public in wealthy nations perceives the developing world – it’s to raise money to continue doing their work. Which I don’t think is entirely unfair.

On a different note, I think there is more Johansson’s parting from Oxfam than meets the eye. Upon digging a bit deeper, I discovered that the reason for the split was because SodaStream (an Israeli) runs a factory on an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. They employ about 500 Palestinians and (at least, according to Johansson) treat and pay them well. However, Oxfam is unequivocally opposed to any Israeli settlements or businesses in Palestine – so, because of the organization’s very prominent political position, they had to let the actress go.

Perhaps the more pertinent question for Oxfam, rather than, “Are celebrities worth the trouble?” might be “Are politics worth the trouble?” Which, incidentally, is its own very interesting question.

2014 Gates Foundation Annual Letter

As most of you probably know, last week the Gates Foundation released their Annual Letter addressing three myths that Bill and Melinda Gates believe are blocking progress for poor people all over the world. Previous letters focused on the Foundation’s annual activities, so it’s quite a change that this year’s letter cites examples and data from around the world to disprove the following:

Myth 1: Poor countries are doomed to stay poor
Myth 2: Foreign aid is a big waste
Myth 3: Saving lives leads to overpopulation

Overall the letter is a very optimistic one, painting a bright picture of the future for the world’s poor and sick. It includes a combination of videos, infographics, and a lot of quotables which I’m sure we’ll see in other places. If you haven’t had a chance to read through it yet, I encourage you to take some time to do so. It’s worth it.

In terms of global health and development, it’s easy for us to lose perspective on how much progress is actually being achieved and for that reason I can appreciate the optimism in the letter. However, I see the letter as more of a cautionary piece or call to action, warning people against believing all the “bad” development news in the media. I don’t think it will truly dispel any of these myths, but it’s done a good job of raising interesting questions, starting conversations, causing controversy, and spurring critical discussions around the three myths and their related topics. In fact, the letter has resulted in a lot of global health professionals and others sharing their opinions online so join the conversation by reading the letter, watching the series of short videos here, and posting your reactions and comments below.

Side note 1: For those who are interested, Bill Gates went on Late Night with Jimmy Kimmel last week to talk about the letter.

Side note 2: Bill Nye the Science Guy is featured in one of the videos that focuses specifically on global health and child mortality and two members of the cast of the MythBusters TV show are featured in another video

Too far to go still: India’s struggle against gang-rape continues

This was cross-posted to my professional blog.

In the worst news you’ll read today, yet another gang-rape – of another tourist, and the second one this week – has surfaced in India.

An 18-year-old German was allegedly raped on Friday after falling asleep on a train heading to Chennai in southeastern India, where she was going to do volunteer work with a charity.

“The young lady took several days to muster courage to report to the police,” Inspector General of Police Seema Agarwal told NDTV. “Though it’s too late for medical examination, we have handled the case in a very sensitive manner.”

The attack brings the toll of publicized rapes on foreigners in the country to two in just a week, after a 51-year-old Danish woman was allegedly gang-raped in New Delhi on Tuesday.

En route to do charity work – they say no good deed goes unpunished, but damn.

Rape in general, and gang-rape in particular, has been the subject of a lot of scrutiny, and (thankfully) a whole lot of national soul-searching in India since the report of a brutal gang-rape on a bus in New Delhi made international headlines in 2012. Naturally, the stories involving tourists tend to garner more attention that those of locals, but there have been plenty of those to go around. Take the case of the German tourist raped by her yoga instructor in December. Or the British woman who jumped from her hotel window to escape a rape by the hotel manager. Or the Swiss woman who was brutalized by five tribesmen while her husband was tied to a tree. All of these news article mention, and often link to, stories of multiple other women who went through similar ordeals. You could spend all day following the links and questioning the humanity of humanity, or seriously wondering if Antoine Dodson had it right after all.

In response to the 2012 Delhi case and subsequent uproar, the Indian government worked very quickly to strengthen existing rape laws and increase punishments for perpetrators. However, while cases involving foreigners are seen through, too many cases reported by Indian women are just dropped, or completely ignored. Meanwhile, no one can really explain why this keeps happening.

A few obvious things spring to mind. Feminists in the west wage a never-ending battle against rape culture and victim-blaming, but the terms take on a whole new light in Indian culture, which is dominated by men and dictated by strict social rules. In the Delhi case, the defendants’ lawyer offered this gem to the press:

“Until today I have not seen a single incident or example of rape with a respected lady,” Sharma said in an interview at a cafe outside the Supreme Court in India’s capital. “Even an underworld don would not like to touch a girl with respect.”

Sharma said the man and woman should not have been traveling back late in the evening and making their journey on public transport. He also it was the man’s responsibility to protect the woman and that he had failed in his duty.

“The man has broken the faith of the woman,” Sharma said. “If a man fails to protect the woman, or she has a single doubt about his failure to protect her, the woman will never go with that man.”

A spiritual guru and a politician offered a different perspectives:

A spiritual guru, Asharam, sparked an outcry earlier this week when he said the New Delhi victim was equally responsible and should have “chanted God’s name and fallen at the feet of the attackers” to stop the assault.

Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the pro-Hindu Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh that underpins the country’s main opposition political party, said rapes only occur in Indian cities, not in its villages, because women there adopt western lifestyles.

Pearls of wisdom, to be sure.

One factoid that has been indicated is the stark gender imbalance, propagated by sex-selective abortions and female infanticide. Another issue is the widespread prevalence of abject poverty; the perpetrators are bored, desensitized, and have nothing to lose. An October article in the New York Times examined the issue in depth through coverage of a case in Mumbai:

One problem is that perpetrators may not view their actions as a grave crime, but something closer to mischief. A survey of more than 10,000 men carried out in six Asian countries — India not among them — and published in The Lancet Global Health journal in September came up with startling data. It found that, when the word “rape” was not used as part of a questionnaire, more than one in 10 men in the region admitted to forcing sex on a woman who was not their partner.

Asked why, 73 percent said the reason was “entitlement.” Fifty-nine percent said their motivation was “entertainment seeking,” agreeing with the statements “I wanted to have fun” or “I was bored.” Flavia Agnes, a Mumbai women’s rights lawyer who has been working on rape cases since the 1970s, said the findings rang true to her experience.

“It’s just frivolous; they just do it casually,” she said. “There is so much abject poverty. They just want to have a little fun on the side. That’s it. See, they have nothing to lose.”