Posted by: davidjolson | 07/10/2009

Final Thoughts from L’Aquila

L’AQUILA, Italy — I found out only a week ago that I was coming to Italy to promote global health for the Global Health Council. I know global health and I know communications but I know little about the G8, and even less about how to budge this immense geo-politico-media mountain. But I came up with a plan and started learning quickly as soon as I hit Italian soil. I thought it might be useful to give you my plan, how I think I did and what I learned.

My communications plan was three-pronged: 1) Social media (mostly blogging),  2) major media relations and 3) U.S. government engagement.

1) The social media prong went brilliantly with lots of great support from colleagues in DC and Vermont and readers like you. Earlier this week, I posted daily blogs. Once the summit began, I started posting multiple blogs per day. As I learned more and saw more, I had more and more ideas for blogs. Today, the last day, I have more ideas than I have time to write.  I’ve been advised by the Council’s office in Washington that 700 people looked at the blog on Wednesday and I’ve received a dozen appreciative comments, some with questions, others with ideas. GHC/Vermont also had the idea of putting a link to the blog on the Council Facebook page, and we’ve received several comments there as well. We’ve also tweeted the G8, both from Italy and the U.S. and we’ve been “retweeted” by several GHC members like White Ribbon Alliance, PATH , Intrahealth, Women Deliver and others. Thanks to everyone who retweeted us and helped spread these reports further. Links to this blog have been placed on a number of other websites covering the G8.

2) Major media engagement has been less successful even though all of us who work for non-governmental organizations are working out of the same media centres as the 3,500-some journalists covering this Summit. I heard from the diplomatic correspondent of the BBC the first day who wanted to talk to me about “backsliding” on the Millennium Development Goals. But I haven’t been able to get in touch with him since that first contact. I’ve also been trying to run down the phantom from the Financial Times (the friend of a friend) who staked out a computer in the media centre early on (marked “Financial Times”) but then never showed. Or at least I never saw him. Oddly, my single media success was when New York Times Columnist Nicholas Kristof, who was not at the Summit, wrote a column on the G8 using information partially supplied by me.

3) I failed totally to interact with the Administration (but so did the rest of U.S. civil society here) except for the climate change briefing I attended given by President Obama and five other G8 leaders yesterday which I don’t count because it had nothing to do with health (and, oh yeah, I didn’t actually talk to the President). Disappointingly, there was absolutely no contact between the U.S. NGO delegation and the Administration of any kind during the Summit though I’m told that there has been in other years. In fact, we couldn’t get a meeting with them in Washington before the Summit either. The British NGOs met with their government. One member of our U.S. delegation even met with the head of the Japanese delegation. But none of us had any contact with our own government!

The other disappointing thing is that neither global health nor water and sanitation came out very clearly in the comments of President Obama and his Administration or in the mainstream media except for two notable exceptions — the Kristof column already mentioned and French First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, who wrote a commentary in the Guardian of the U.K. Tuesday called “My Message to the G8 Leaders in L’Aquila,” one of them being her husband. As a global ambassador for the prevention of HIV in women and children, she wrote: “Knowing that millions remain in need while effective interventions exist, I am more determined than ever to add my voice to the global effort to fight Aids and other infectious diseases.As the G8 meets in L’Aquila, leaders should feel proud of the revolution in global health they started eight years ago. I hope they will celebrate their achievements by expanding their investment in saving lives and reducing inequities. It is not only possible – it is happening, it works, and there is much more still to do.”

As far as I know, that was the most prominent (and surprising) voice at the G8 advocating for global health, and I am grateful to Ms. Bruni-Sarkozy for that.

President Obama left L’Aquila about an hour ago, took a helicopter direct to Vatican City and has now been received with much pomp and pageantry by Pope Benedict II as we can see on the monitors in the media centre. Later tonight, Air Force One will touch down in Ghana, his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa as president. We have heard that he and the first lady will be visiting a USAID-funded maternal and child health project in an Accra hospital (we have heard for weeks that Michele Obama would be going but only yesterday that the President might go as well), and we will be watching carefully in hopes that global health comes out more clearly as a priority in Ghana than it did here at the G8.


  1. I congratulate you for putting out your “less-than-great successes” and “failures” so bluntly. Therein is where we best learn.

    I hope you learned a lot, enjoyed a lot, and came back re-determined to continue this work where “there is still much more to do.”

    Best, Beth

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