UN Civil Society Listening Session on NCDs: Anything But Interactive

Approximately 350 representatives of civil society participated in a one-day session in New York on June 13, to provide verbal input into the UN High Level Meeting on non communicable diseases (NCDs). Convened by the President of the General Assembly and staffed by the World Health Organization (WHO), the session was supposed to be an opportunity for United Nations agencies and member states to hear from civil society, including nongovernmental organizations, members of the business community, chronic illness survivors and others about the topic.  Billed as an "interactive" session, the idea had been to encourage free flow of ideas among these groups.

In the end, roughly 50 members of civil society got a chance to speak.  They covered issues as diverse as heart disease in Africa, children's chronic illness, contributions to be made by the business community, health as a human right, disabilities, dental health, and the need to consider survivors. There were some high points -- including a moving speech from Princess Dina Mired of Jordan about her son's leukemia, which inspired her to help create the King Hussein Cancer Center, and an equally heart-rending speech by a survivor from the Philippines who had lost his vocal chords to throat cancer.  Unfortunately, these moments were few and far between, as the mainly technical and dispassionate speeches read from prepared texts seemed almost deliberately devoid of emotion, and more like verbal diplomatic talking points delivered at a technical meeting.  There was no outrage and almost no controversy.  This is a far cry from recent UN meetings, including the Millennium Development Goals Summit and the just-concluded UN High Level Meeting on HIV/AIDS, where advocates have not felt similarly restrained.

But there was also no "interaction." It was clear from the outset that "interactive listening session" moderator Morgan Binswanger (chief of staff at LIVESTRONG) had his hands full.  Over the first couple of hours, Binswanger pleaded with a very small set of pre-selected "eminent" speakers to keep their remarks short as to not overwhelm the proceedings.  Unfortunately, those pleas went largely unheard, as presenter after presenter delivered pre-written texts, some of which exceeded 15 minutes in length.  In the end, just a few dozen of the participants had a chance to speak from the floor.  One of those, who quite unexpectedly was called on , described his opportunity as "like winning the lottery."  After lunchtime, in an effort to move things along, Binswanger announced that the organizers had decided to "throw the format out the window."  He again asked in clear terms for those called up to the dais to limit their comments, and repeatedly broke in to remind speakers to "please sum up."  Sadly, none did.  Many of those who had lined up first thing in the morning to speak, even those who had been at the head of the line, went away disappointed.

It is true that organizations also have the opportunity to provide written input -- which many have done (here's the Public Health Institute's).  And it was equally clear that the WHO had made an extraordinary effort to ensure that organizations from around the globe were represented.  As the organization has done throughout the past several months, WHO staff, especially those from the NCD and Mental Health Cluster, worked tirelessly to create a space for open discussion, and is now promising a pithy condensation of the verbal and written comments within the coming days.  Perhaps the best that can be said is that there is more to be said. The United Nations later posted a summary of the session, an unofficial version of which can be found here.

The Interactive Listening Session was billed as a chance for nation states and UN agencies to engage members of civil society.  A few nations took that on -- government representatives from the United States (including Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Thomas Frieden), Mexico, and Kenya were especially prominent among the 25 or so who sent personnel. But other than the WHO, and its subsidiaries (like the Pan American Health Organization), virtually no other UN agency was present.  UNICEF, which has a mandate for children's health and hundreds of staff in a building less than two blocks away from the General Assembly hall, didn't bother to attend.  Neither did UNFPA (which works on women's health), UN Development Programme, UN Environment Program, or the International Labor Organization.  The World Bank, which really should be taking notice of the fact that NCDs cost the globe an average of $6 trillion per year, didn't send anyone either.  Perhaps they hadn't yet read Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon's report on NCDs, issued several days ago (on which they apparently all collaborated), suggesting that only a whole-of-UN approach would work.

There are 13 short weeks to go before the High Level Meeting on NCDs takes place again in New York.  Governments are expecting to receive a preliminary draft declaration by June 23, and much frenzied negotiating will be taking place, mainly behind closed doors, this summer.  Will any of it include the points made at the listening session?  Perhaps only if advocates really get busy.  And get angry.   


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