October 3rd, 2010 12:01 EST
Heartening Stories From Countries in Africa, India and Thailand Reaches Global Audiences
Chennai (Women`s Feature Service) - Even as the world was meeting to review progress on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) at a specially convened UN summit, remarkable and heartening stories from countries in Africa, India and Thailand reached global audiences thanks to a discussion on healthcare and the MDGs webcast from a theatre hall in New York City on September 20.
The 90-minute webcast looked at how close nations were to reaching the 2015 healthcare performance deadline set by the United Nations and the future of public health. Facilitated by TEDxchange, AED and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, it had among the speakers well-known personalities associated with international development work. They included GraÃ§a Machel, international champion for child rights and president of the Foundation for Community Development that focuses on reconstructing post-war Mozambique; Mechai Viravaidya, physician from Thailand who is founder and chairman of the Population and Community Development Association, a family planning and HIV/AIDS awareness NGO; Melinda Gates, well-known American philanthropist and co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a charity involved in public health issues worldwide; and Hans Rosling, professor of International Health at Karolinska Institute in Sweden and co-founder of the Gapminder Foundation, noted for his ability to animate global data to highlight the world`s developmental gaps. The discussion was relayed live to several cities round the world, including Chennai, Pune and Sitla in India, where people gathered to watch the presentation.
Machel put the case of Africa firmly on the table. Africa, she said, "cannot be seen as a continent of failure", and she pointed out that many of the continent`s 53 countries have a real chance to reach the MDGs by 2015. "Everybody has plans for our continent, Africa. I want plans for Africa from Africa, made in Africa," Machel commented wryly, and went on to provide examples of change. Malawi, for instance, had demonstrated its ability to combat famine in 2002 and become a food exporter by 2004. Rwanda, after the genocide, has been able to bring its women into politics and administration to such a great extent that today 56 per cent of members and the Speaker in its parliament are women, the largest number for any country in the world.
So, according to Machel, the need of the hour is to "educate women and involve them in development" and to learn to prioritise. "Some countries can reach half the goals... here identifying the goals that can be reached is priority and rigid monitoring needs to be done," she observed.
Like Machel, Melinda Gates believed that the world was changing. She cited a story from India. Sri Ram, the child of a farm labourer from the Dhaka block in East Champaran district of Bihar, was stricken by polio. Timely information on the case triggered a lightning national response. The National Polio Surveillance Project identified the genetic strain and concluded that the virus was migrating from north to south. The government was then able to quickly vaccinate two million children in several states such as Bihar and West Bengal within a few weeks. Polio immunisation has now been initiated at all the 46 transit points along India-Nepal border.
To demonstrate the possibilities of grassroots transformation through polio management, a film was also shown on Amlan Ganguli`s Prayasam, an organisation that has trained `child health minders` in Kolkata`s slums to become polio watchdogs and motivators for vaccination, health, hygiene and sanitation. Gates also flagged the fact that governments are now using the network and outreach of local entrepreneurs to combat preventable child illnesses. Through such an approach, a new Ethiopian health extension programme was able to train 35,000 health workers to deliver care to those unable to travel to cities.
Like Machel, Gates believed that women are central to change. "If you put the tools in women`s hands, we can lift society up," she said.
Mechai Viravaidya, well-known for his advocacy of condom use the world over, expressed the view that "for MDGs to work, we need family planning to be included in it", arguing that less births meant less deaths of mothers and children. He cited the example of Thailand, where better reproductive health coverage and effective outreach interventions helped to save innumerable lives. Contraceptives were made freely available as the first big step and village shopkeepers were soon functioning as delivery points for pills and condoms. Teachers and religious functionaries were also brought into the process. The innovative marketing of the idea of condom use, that Viravaidya has pioneered in Thailand and which had earned him the title of `Mr Condom`, was particularly effective in raising awareness among young people. Condom blowing competitions were organised and T-shirts had messages printed on them that said, `In Rubber, We Trust`, and `Stop Global Warming, Use Condoms`. The result of these efforts was heartening. Between 1991 and 2003, Thailand was able to save over 7.7 million lives and bring down new HIV/AIDS infections by 90 per cent.
Hans Rosling, who co-developed the breakthrough software, Trendalyzer, which converts data from all corners of the world into moving, interactive graphics on global development trends, did some useful data analysis during the webcast to explode myths. He declared that "there is no such thing as western and developing countries", explaining that with regard to many indices "Singapore is better than Sweden and Qatar is a `rich` country." He also noted that from the 1960s onward, countries such as Thailand, Egypt, Qatar, Ghana, Kenya and India were moving into development areas that were thought to exist only for "western" countries. It, therefore, becomes important, according to Roslin, to measure each country individually and real-time data gathering becomes crucial to this process.
Rosling also argued that developmental change takes place slowly - many advanced western countries began showing signs of transformation from the early 19th century onward. It took decades, even centuries, to achieve the standards they now have. Given this, the 10-year/15-year time frame set to measure the MDGs was, he felt, too short a time period to measure change on the ground.
The TEDxchange webcast brought many diverse and authoritative voices together on some of the most crucial concerns of the 21st century. The one message that emerged from the discussion was that there is hope yet for the countries of the world to attain the MDGs by 2015; that despite the immense challenges that remain, change is possible.
By Papri Sri Raman
Â© Women`s Feature Service