Posted by: davidjolson | 10/15/2010

A global health postcard from the edge of the bay

This is a guest blog by Ruth Landy, who is a strategic communication consultant based in San Francisco following assignments with UNICEF, the World Health Organization, the GAVI Alliance and the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA — So what do the world’s global health challenges look like sitting by the edge of San Francisco Bay? The region is home to Silicon Valley, biotech startups and great universities. Here geography and culture meld to create a distinctive perspective on global development.

On a spectacular Wednesday this week, a sold out crowd of global health professionals and students piled into an airy building near the bay to address opportunities and challenges for the next decade. It’s fitting that the first Bay Area Global Health Summmit, hosted by the University of California at San Francisco’s Global Health Group, was held on a site still under construction. Even as California remains mired in recession, UCSF is powering ahead with the construction of the Mission Bay campus, envisioned as a hub of innovation, biotechnology and care. Biopharma was prominently represented at the Bay Area event, along with an eclectic mix of actors now influencing global health.

In an opening session on development aid, Richard Feachem, director of UCSF’s Global Health Group, took a critical perspective: “If the aid industry were a corporation, its shareholders and boards of directors would have surely fired the senior management team several times over the last fifty years, and demanded major reengineering of the business model to achieve greater returns on investment. Nothing like this has, in fact, occurred.”

Summit speakers highlighted strong headwinds the global health community must contend with going forward — a fragmented architecture, governance issues, lean years following a decade of increasing resources and a complex multi-polar world driven by competition as much as cooperation. “What will be the long-term impact of China’s major infrastructure investments in Africa,“ several participants wondered.

The absolute need for country ownership came back often. “We used to say, the McKinsey man is coming with the solutions in his briefcase,” Tim Thahane, Lesotho’s minister of Finance and Development Planning told participants. “Unfortunately, when the McKinsey man left, the problems were still there. Because we couldn’t maintain the solutions he put in place — they weren’t adapted to our context.” Thahane singled out national and local political leadership as essential ingredients for development success, along with an active NGO sector and increased private sector cooperation with the government.

Event participants highlighted the remarkable health gains of the past decade, from lives saved by vaccines and antiretrovirals to innovative financing mechanisms. “Innovation and action for the next decade” was the event motto, with several Bay Area-based companies showcasing their particular contributions. Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg hailed the power of social networking to promote social change and serve as an early warning system for health threats. Gilead Sciences CEO John Martin described his company’s commitment to make new drugs available in low income countries, with almost a million people now on AIDS treatment.

Summit attendees heard a passionate call for increased investment in research from Julio Frenk, dean of Harvard School of Public Health. “The ultimate public good is knowledge,” he said “and knowledge is under-funded.”

“We need to move from a supply-driven to a demand-driven model of development” said Richard Feachem in closing. “The demand side should rule. And local ownership really, really matters.”

Going out in the brilliant light at the day’s end, my head is filled with a dense patchwork of insights and further questions. Too much ground to cover and not enough time. Apparently, there are others who also feel it would be good to continue exchanging. The organizers hope to convene their second Global Heath Summit by the Bay in 2011.

You can view all the summit sessions via webcast here.


  1. Women’s health and children’s health, and the environment, and the economy are all tied together. Just spoke today in Santa Barbara at the UN Day celebration about how central MDG 5 is to the whole of the MDGs. Especially Target 2 about ACCESS TO FAMILY PLANNING!
    Jane Roberts, Co-Founder
    34 Million Friends of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)

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