February 2, 2015 |

Global health and development take center stage at World Economic Forum

PATH CEO Steve Davis says we have an unprecedented opportunity to accelerate progress towards health equity.
Two mothers, one standing next to her baby being weighed in a scale hanging from a tree branch and the other carrying her baby in a sling.
In Davos there was an increased focus on accelerating progress towards development goals. Photo: PATH/Gabe Bienczycki.

A few reflections on the World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting in Davos, Switzerland, and the Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance’s pledging conference in Berlin from PATH’s president and CEO Steve Davis.

Through my roles at PATH and previous organizations, I have been fortunate to be invited to attend the annual WEF gathering in Davos over several years. In that time I have seen nonprofits and civil society organizations take increasingly important roles at these agenda-setting gatherings. While it is difficult to get a handle on the key trends in this multi-layered, complex environment, this year, the importance of inclusive growth and global development, and the role of nonprofits and civil society in that work, seemed to take center stage.

Yes, Davos has the jet-setting, celebrity, power-brokering aspect that gets played up in the media. But both there and at the Gavi pledging conference I attended in Berlin (where the global community pledged over US$7.5 billion for vaccine and immunization programs), there was an increased focus on the important leadership and partnership roles that nonprofit and civil society organizations like PATH are playing as we confront global challenges and work to solidify and accelerate progress towards development goals.

Person looking at a white board with illustration of the elements of the chronic disease crises.
A WEF participant considers the notes from a discussion called The Globalization of Chronic Disease. Photo: WEF.

Resilience was a recurring theme

Many of the challenges discussed at Davos were not even on the agenda one year ago: new conflicts, new epidemics, new fiscal uncertainties, new evidence of accelerating environmental change. So this year the focus on growth was tempered by conversations about resilience.

Bar chart showing reduction in child deaths from five chronic diseases.
We have made remarkable progress. How can we accelerate it? Click to see full-sized chart.

In some conversations, I got the sense that people and institutions are feeling overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of global challenges. At a lunch panel with technology leaders like Marc Benioff (Salesforce), Marissa Meyer (Yahoo), and Satya Nadella (Microsoft), upbeat assessments of the transformative power of the Internet were tempered by concerns about the magnitude of global security challenges and the continued and growing public distrust of business and government worldwide.

But wise voices of optimism also spoke powerfully about the dramatic improvements in health we’ve achieved in poor countries, and the clear markers of progress over the past few decades. Today, we have unprecedented tools and collaborations that we can harness to accelerate impact.

One moment that drove this home was a breakfast on our renewed commitment to nutrition and food security, in which many senior business, government, and nonprofit leaders pledged to a more ambitious agenda. At several meetings on health there was very little skepticism about our ability to continue to dramatically reduce child and women’s mortality in the coming decade.

Global health and development takes a leadership role

It seems global health and development has moved to center stage in international discussions about security, development, and governance. Health has always been part of the WEF agenda, but this year in particular there were an exceptional number of discussions about health-related topics: nutrition, food security, Ebola, noncommunicable diseases like cancer and diabetes, digital health initiatives, mental health, reform of global health institutions like the World Health Organization, and more.

While this focus stems in large part from the Ebola crisis, it is also occurring because the sector can point to remarkable, measurable, rapid successes. It is very compelling to be able to describe tangible achievements at scale, like having reduced under-five child mortality by 50% since 1990, or vaccinating more than 200 million Africans against Meningitis A in five years.

2015 will be a huge year for the global development agenda, with a key meeting on new development financing models this July in Ethiopia, the finalization and announcement of the new sustainable development goals in September at the UN General Assembly, and perhaps the conclusion of a climate treaty at the end of the year in Paris.

In a remarkable plenary video message from Stephen Hawking, he described the resilience of the planet and species, acknowledging the specific challenges ahead in the global development agenda but expressing his profound optimism about the human ability to love, persevere, and thrive. It was a powerful moment.

Health systems in emerging economies can leapfrog to a new paradigm

Illustration of elements of 'leapfrogging,' including a book, smartphone, and pills.
WEF has released a new report and video on the idea of “leapfrogging.” Illustration: WEF.

“Leapfrogging” was a word on many health sector leaders’ lips at Davos. Emerging economies have an opportunity to build accessible, high-quality, and cost-effective health systems while potentially leaping over problems embedded in the models and systems prevalent in developed economies.  The WEF has actively led this conversation, releasing a recent report and video. Having served as an advisor to these efforts, it was exciting to see them bear fruit, and be an active topic of conversation at the highest levels.

Aaron Motsoaledi speaking at a podium.
South Africa’s Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi. Photo: MOH.

South Africa’s Minister of Health Aaron Motsoaledi and I led a Davos session on creating “ideal clinics” for primary care in his country. Can an emerging health system leapfrog some of the issues that challenge primary care in more developed nations, leverage digital technologies, and be intentional about a user-centered approach to systems design?

I travel to South Africa in a few days, and I want to pursue this idea and see what we can do to bring more of our partnerships, tools, and ideas to the Minister’s exciting commitment.

Innovation was central to almost every conversation I had all week. As we move towards the UN’s new sustainable development goals, we must learn from the last decade, and work to identify, fund, and support promising innovations as early as possible. This is a focus of many efforts, including the PATH-Norway-Gates Foundation partnership called Innovation Countdown 2030, which will release a major global health innovation report this summer.

Gavi’s remarkable funding conference

Of course, one of the most powerful public health interventions is vaccination. PATH’s growing and well-regarded vaccine platform was part of many conversations, especially at the Gavi replenishment meeting that took place in Berlin after Davos.

There, we heard stories from communities and countries where the impact of vaccines is being deeply felt. The MenAfriVac project’s groundbreaking work was highlighted: since vaccination began in 2010, the annual cycle of deadly meningitis epidemics has been completely stopped across much of what was formerly described as Africa’s “meningitis belt.”

Bill Gates speaking on a large stage with a projected photo above him.
Bill Gates spoke passionately at Gavi about reducing child deaths. Photo: Gavi.

PATH is a founding Gavi partner, and we have partnered closely since the beginning. We have actively advocated for Gavi funding, and I was privileged to see this important organization receive the global support and pledges it needs to continue its transformative and lifesaving work.

Bill Gates, from the Gavi stage, described unequal access to vaccines as a global injustice that we have the power to correct, and led by example with a remarkably large pledge from the foundation. There is much work ahead before this injustice is rectified, but for one day in Berlin, as countries committed more than US$7.5 billion, there was palpable optimism and excitement.

A whirlwind trip

Overall, it’s been an exciting and exhausting trip: snowy shuttle rides, engaging conversations, the occasional celebrity sighting.

We have much work ahead of us, but after these meetings I am starting 2015 with renewed confidence that we can find new and innovative ways to partner across geographies, industries, sectors, and political philosophies in service to the larger goals we all share: equity, opportunity, and health for all.

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