Posted by: davidjolson | 06/27/2010

One global health advocate’s view of the Canadian summits

TORONTO, Canada — It’s been a raucous three days here at the overlapping G8 and G20 Canadian summits. Those of us who work in global health were all hoping and expecting a major announcement on maternal and child health and we got it, but it happened in ways that may influence how global health fares in the future, particularly at summits like this. The issues are logistics, media access, NGO reaction and media interest in maternal and child health

First, there have never been two summits at the same time in the same country. The G8 ran Friday and Saturday in a remote area two hours north of here by road called Muskoka, in the town of Huntsville. Because of the limited facilities there, very few journalists (and no NGO representative that I know of) had access and those few that did had to be up at 3:00 am to go through security and catch the bus in Toronto for the long trip north to Huntsville. And the G20 was Saturday and Sunday in Toronto, but the leaders were still separated from the media and NGOs, albeit by one mile instead of 200. Where one summit ended and another began was confusing, and there were conflicting reports on when each of the communiques would be issued. However, I suspect this situation is an anomoly, and not likely to be repeated.

Second, the issue of media access to NGOs has been a big issue for the NGOs throughout the summits. At recent summits, including both of those last year in Italy and Pittsburgh, NGOs for the most part had full access to the international media. This worked to the advantage of both parties and ensured that journalists had just as much access to civil society as they did to governmental delegations who, understandably, want to spin things in their favor (as does civil society).

For some reason which no one understands, the Canadian government thought this was a bad idea and decided to put the NGOs in an “Alternative Media Center” that segregates the two groups into separate buildings across the street from each other. The difference is that the one for the media is surrounded by a high fence and concrete barriers and NGOs are not allowed in without an invitation from someone with media credentials for that building. Most of us in civil society have not been invited across the street, and few reporters leave the comfort of their media center to come to us.

The Global Health Council was one of 12 non-governmental organizations that put out a statement critical of the Canadian government for this “media apartheid” which produced an article in Saturday’s Toronto Star.

But another aspect of media and civil society access was less commented upon. At the 2009 G8 in L’Aquila, Italy, we all — journalists and NGOs — had access to the heads of state and the country delegations. That is, we were all in the same facility, inside the same perimeter. Because of that, for example, I was able to attend a press conference with President Obama, Prime Minister Harper and other G8 leaders without going through security again. That was not the case in Pittsburgh. And here in Toronto, even most of the mainstream media does not have access to the heads of state, who are in the Toronto Convention Center a mile away from the two media centers. In a press briefing this morning by South Korea, the host of the next G20 in November, we were told that Seoul will revert to the L’Aquila model, where we are all together in the same location.

Third, it was interesting to see the different reactions in the NGO community to the announcement of the $7.3 billion, five-year Muskoka Initiative on maternal, newborn, child and reproductive health championed by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Even though this is a huge win for global health advocates, given the relative attention that global health attracted at the 2009 summits, the NGO reaction was somewhat, though not uniformly, negative. Generally, the pure advocacy organizations (like the ONE Campaign) and the large implementing organizations that work in many areas of development (like Save the Children and Oxfam) were negative. But the organizations which focus on health, like Global Health Council and the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health, both organizations representing hundreds of other organizations, were much more upbeat about the Muskoka Initiative. As was the African Medical and Relief Foundation (AMREF), the only indigenous African health organization present in Toronto.

The Washington Post, one of the few U.S. mainstream media outlets to give this story any legs, published a story entitled “Aid group slams lack of financial support for maternal and child health initiative.” based on quotes only from Save the Children and Oxfam, two of the NGOs that did get into the media center. Other organizations, with more positive perspectives, were not interviewed because they were not in the media center to be interviewed. I made this point in my letter published in the Post July 1 (second letter down).

In this case, it appears that the Canadian government strategy backfired as they might have gotten a better story out on their flagship G8 initiative if they had allowed full access between media and NGOs.

Finally, the Muskoka Initiative on maternal and child health got very good media coverage in Canada (it was front page news on the front of The Globe and Mail, Canada’s premier newspaper, on Saturday, and it was surprisingly prominent in the Canadian TV coverage that I saw). People on the street knew about it; my taxi driver on Saturday night, originally from Bangladesh, told me it was the best story coming out of the G8 and would improve a lot of lives. But it got little to no coverage from mainstream U.S. media.

I understand why this initiative was a big story in Canada since it is a Canadian initiative and the summits are taking place in Canada. But I wish that the U.S. media had paid more attention to one of the best stories coming out of the summits, and the one that could potentially improve and save so many lives. And I wish the NGO community had been more welcoming of what is a highly positive development and a step — if not a leap — in the right direction. We just need to keep building on this significant success.

Stephen Harper said something in his press conference on Friday night about the Muskoka Initiative that we put it in our G8 press release: “Of all things we could spend our money on, who wouldn’t want to spend to save the life of a mother who would otherwise die?”

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