Multilateral Health Bodies Outside of the World Health Organization

Apr 30, 2018

Multilateral health bodies serve a critical role, bringing diverse ministries of health together in partnership to share best practices and establish norms and standards for health systems.  The World Health Organization, as the health arm of the United Nations, and its regional bodies, engage in this work at the global and regional level. In addition, there are sub-regional as well as issue-based multilateral health organizations, which are an important part of the global intergovernmental public health structure.  These organizations play an important, but often less publicized role in strengthening health systems, addressing critical health needs for their citizens and providing an important platform for coordination and consensus building.

The East, Central and Southern Africa Health Community (ECSA-HC), based in Arusha, Tanzania, represents nine countries in the region: Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Swaziland, United Republic of Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. It was created in 1974 to strengthen regional cooperation and capacity to address the health needs of the countries it represents. Recognizing the value of partnership in addressing common health challenges in the region, ECSA-HC also engages the governments of non-member states including Botswana, Burundi, Eritrea, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, South Sudan, Seychelles and Somalia. Each year ECSA-HC hosts both a Best Practices Forum (BPF), as well as a Health Ministers’ Conference. The BPF is a working meeting which brings together researchers and practitioners to discuss priority health issues and, through dialogue and debate, make recommendations for member state action. The ESCA-HC Health Ministers’ Conference acts as a follow-on to the BPF, where health ministers agree on the recommendations it will take forward in the form of resolutions. These processes not only provide a critical space for formal and informal collaboration and relationship building, but strategically feed into future conversations at AFRO or WHO.

Likewise, the West Africa Health Organization (WAHO), which was created in 1987 as a Specialized Institution of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), provides a forum in which the 15 west Africa countries work together to harmonize policies, pool resources and create collective strategies to address regional health concerns. These 15 countries are: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cabo Verde, Cote D’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinee, Guinee Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo. WAHO is able to successfully leverage the technical expertise of the region, something no individual ministry of health or donor has been able to accomplish. The body has broad objectives related to research, training, evidence dissemination, regional exchange and collaboration, and health system strengthening. These objectives contribute to achieving the vision of regional integration, enabling the uptake of high-impact and cost-effective interventions and programs. The WAHO Assembly of Health Ministers brings together the Ministers of Health and serves as the body responsible for health issues at the technical level.  However, because WAHO’s structure is linked to ECOWAS, it is also governed by the Council of ECOWAS Ministers (ministers of regional integration, finance and planning) as well as the Heads of State, the decision-making body of WAHO.  WAHO’s structural link to the highest levels of national governments provides the additional advantage of leveraging a political mandate.

One example of an intergovernmental organization which similarly brings ministers of health together, but is organized around a specific health issue, is Partners in Population and Development (PPD). Launched in 1994, at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), PPD was created specifically for the purpose of expanding and improving South-to-South collaboration in the fields of reproductive health, population and development.  It represents 10 founding members: Bangladesh, Colombia, Egypt, Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico, Morocco, Thailand, Tunisia and Zimbabwe, and 15 more member countries including: Benin, China, Ethiopia, the Gambia, India, Mali, Pakistan, Uganda, Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria, South Africa, Jordan, Yemen and Vietnam. In all, PPD represents over half of the world’s population and is fully South-South funded, receiving no OECD funding. PPD organizes an annual International Inter-Ministerial Conference as an opportunity for PPD member countries and development stakeholders to engage in peer review, exchange knowledge and experiences, network, engage in policy dialogues and bi-lateral commitments and to promote South-South cooperation on sexual and reproductive health, population and development. It also publishes a scientific journal, the International Journal for Population, Development and Health, which includes high-quality research on topics related to PPD’s mandate. Like ESCA-HC and WAHO, PPD also plays an unmatched role linking critical health needs with donors looking to leverage scarce funding and engage local voices in health programs and processes.

While often less well known outside of their member state constituency, these intergovernmental health bodies have a long history of successfully working with ministries of health, local implementing organizations, researchers and evidence advocates to convene discussions and strategies around the most pressing health issues for the people they serve.  This unique ability to bring high-level engagement to local level concerns is particularly valuable in the public health space as so many interventions require cultural and structural nuance.