The World Health Organization (WHO) held the first ever informal meeting with non-state actors ahead of the 74th World Health Assembly (WHA). The meeting was held from April 20 to 22, 2021 virtually. It aimed to strengthen non-state actors including civil society’s involvement in WHA and beyond.

The new model of having an informal meeting ahead of the WHA aims to strengthen the involvement of non-state actors, especially civil society, with the WHO.

WHO needs to ensure it has the ability to engage directly with non-state actors… who can make strong contributions. That is vital to any type of success against the pandemic,” said Mara Burr, director of multilateral relations at the United States Department of Health and Human Services/Global Affairs, as per Health Policy Watch.

Mara Burr, director of multilateral relations, United States Department of Health and Human Services/Global Affairs

The agenda for the meeting was organized around key agenda items of the 74th Session of the World Health Assembly and the 13th General Program of Work’s three pillars to facilitate focused discussions.

  1. Pillar 1: One billion more people benefiting from universal health coverage.
  2. Pillar 2: Public health emergencies: preparedness and response.
  3. Pillar 3: One billion more people enjoying better health and well-being.
  4. Pillar 4: More effective and efficient WHO providing better support to countries.

There were a total of six sessions across the three days. Four of these sessions were between the Secretariat and non-State actors regarding technical issues on the selected items. Two sessions were organized with Member States participation.

The sessions included a panel discussion with representatives from non-State actors, WHO Secretariat and Member States. It also included Q & A from the floor from non-State actor representatives to the meeting. The recorded proceedings are available for viewing on the WHO website.

Civil society plays a critical role

On the opening day the WHO director general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stressed the importance of non-governmental organizations in WHO’s work.

Nongovernmental organizations have been working with WHO since its creation, and continue to play a key role, especially on technical collaboration,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director general, as per Health Policy Watch.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general, WHO

Movendi International participated in the informal dialogue and was represented through Maik Dünnbier, Director of Strategy and Advocacy.

Movendi International members have responded to the ongoing public health crisis in impressive and inspiring ways – a great example of how civil society can help WHO to reach the most vulnerable people, to amplify public health messages, to support governments with essential services and to ensure no one is left behind.

WHO reforms and emergency response

On the opening day session on pillar two, public health emergencies, preparedness and response, member states took the opportunity to share preliminary views regarding key issues that will be discussed in the WHA. This included the proposed “Pandemic treaty”. The treaty aims to:

  • Strengthen the legal mandates around emergency response;
  • Create a more sustainable system for WHO finance, vaccine production, distribution and equity; and
  • Conduct a series of independent reviews both into the functioning of WHO’s own health emergency system, the broader global pandemic response of member states and the functionality of the international health emergency system during the crisis – with recommendations for reform. 

Civil society would be integral to moving forward on a new global framework for pandemic preparedness and response at the WHA and beyond, according to Jaouad Mahjour, WHO acting Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean.

The proposed treaty gained support of about 25 member states leading to the launch of the WHO initiative in March, 2021.

There is currently a group of countries, including the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Indonesia, Kenya, Rwanda, and South Africa, co-sponsoring a draft decision on the treaty at the WHA. The decision would mandate WHO to create an intergovernmental working group to start working through the treaty specifics. 

The aim would be to garner higher local political commitment to ensure and interconnect the global system,” said Jaouad Mahjour, WHO acting Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean, as per Health Policy Watch.

We’re hoping that we go out from this pandemic with strong political commitment, that will protect the world in the future.”

Jaouad Mahjour, acting Regional Director, WHO Eastern Mediterranean

The importance of maintaining essential health services and supporting youth during emergencies were also discussed on the opening day.

Universal health coverage and better health and well being

Day two and three focused on the other two pillars of WHO’s current strategic plan, including: pillar one, one billion more people getting access to universal health coverage and pillar three, one billion more people enjoying better health and well being.  As well as the additional pillar four, a more effective and efficient WHO providing better support to countries.

As part of that, civil society, WHO officials and in selected sessions member state representatives looked at initiatives to address the following issues:

  • Interpersonal violence,
  • Expand access to medicines, vaccines and treatment for rare diseases,
  • Increase transparency around medicines markets,
  • Address health workforce issues, and
  • Create a framework for more sustainable finance for WHO.

In the session on “Mental Health Preparedness and Response during COVID-19” Movendi International took the floor to comment and ask two questions:

The coronavirus crisis has brought two dimensions into sharp focus: on individual level the danger of harmful coping skills and the impact of risk factors on the mental health and well-being of people – where people turn to alcohol and other harmful substances to deal with crises, such as the current pandemic; on societal level, the lack of investment in services for people experiences substance use disorders and other mental health problems.

How is WHO working in humanitarian and public health crisis settings to address, reduce and prevent mental health risk factors, such as alcohol, and promote healthy coping.

How is WHO thinking around/ working for leveraging alcohol taxation and the best buys in general to generate resources for system improvements for better mental health services?”

Maik Dünnbier, Director of Strategy and Advocacy, Movendi International

In the second session on this topic that included representatives of member states, Mr Dünnbier made the following intervention on behalf of Movendi International:

The current crisis illustrates that mental health and psychosocial well-being are the most important aspects, affecting all other aspects. People rank it as primary concern.
At the same time, modifiable mental health risk factors are not yet addressed as much as they could be. For instance, ICD-11 lists actually 11 diagnostic categories for mental health conditions caused by alcohol. And alcohol use and AUDs contribute to almost every mental disorder, including depression, PTSD and suicide.
This means a major factor fueling mental ill-health, the crisis within the current crisis, is modifiable.
How can WHO and Member States respectively give bigger consideration to these modifiable risk factors in policy development and in guidance to the public?
And how can Member States mobilize more resources to invest in mental healthcare services to fill the apparent gaps, especially with a focus on risk factors that also fuel other health and social problems?”

Maik Dünnbier, Director of Strategy and Advocacy, Movendi International

On day 2, the informal dialogue discussed agenda item 23 of the World Health Assembly: “WHO global plan of action to strengthen the role of the health system within a national multisectoral response to address interpersonal violence, in particular against women and girls, and against children”.

Movendi International contributed to the conversation once again:

Domestic violence, intimate partner violence and child abuse and neglect are a crisis within the current crisis. We see reports from around the world of increasing cases of such violence during COVID-19.
One of the groups at highest risk is children living in families with alcohol problems. It’s a massive problem but it is also a really disregarded issue (so far) and the children remain a significantly under-served group.

How is WHO working to better address this problem, both in terms of prevention and in terms of health and social sector responses?”

Maik Dünnbier, Director of Strategy and Advocacy, Movendi International


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