Ghana is commanding world attention with the occasion of the recent 22nd triennial conference of the Commonwealth Medical Association (CMA) and the first Global Symposium of health systems research serving as interesting land mark reference points.
Of all the rave previews flung the way of Ghana, it was the above statement by a Nigerian colleague, captured in the title that I found most alluring.
For the Commonwealth meeting in Malta, Ghana was represented by a high powered delegation from its medical Association, influenced no less by the nomination of two of its members for executive positions.
And then will come the high profile dinner and opening ceremony. Among the dignitaries present would be the British High Commissioner to Malta and the director of the Social Transformation Programme of the Commonwealth.
Unknown to many, the latter would be Dr. Sylvia Anie-Akwetey, recently of the Ghana AIDS Commission and now with the Commonwealth Secretariat, headline sponsors of the triennial event.
When her ‘cover’ as a Ghanaian was blown, the alarm on the face of the lone Nigerian delegate was better seen than described – “Ghana is here again?!”
And then Dr. Sylvia Anie-Akwetey waltzes in gracefully and makes a passionate pitch for non- communicable diseases which “account for 60% of the global disease burden”, and which the “Commonwealth has been at the forefront in expressing concern and raising awareness about.”
In addition, she draws attention to the global scenario where “the incidence of non-communicable diseases is on the rise in the Commonwealth.
This is more than a health challenge: it is increasingly, a development challenge. This reflects a range of interlinked factors including changing diet, tobacco and alcohol use and abuse and reduced physical activity.
By way of illustration, next week we will mark World Diabetes Day. Diabetes has been seen as a side effect of affluence.
However, the fact is that 80% of the diabetes sufferers in the world are in low and middle income countries and a significant proportion of these are the Commonwealth countries.” Then she alarms us with an explosive revelation.
The Commonwealth has set aside some funds for supporting development work in all 54 member countries.
This information has been brought to the attention of Ministers of Health, but “no one is asking.
Why is no one asking for this money to work with?” The room is dead silent! The night has no answers for her.
When it matters most, she speaks up forcefully for Africa and for justice, albeit in charming diplomatically-flavored language.
A Cypriot presentation unwittingly lets drop that measures adopted to combat the twin problems of HIV infection and illegal immigration to Cyprus include quarantine and mandatory HIV testing of the ‘captured.’
Dr Anie-Akwetey promptly draws attention to the global trend (including the United States) moving away from making the HIV status of applicants a pre condition of sorts for the determination of visa decisions etc While expressing interest in the uniqueness of the Cypriot situation, she lets drop that this is potentially a violation of peoples’ human rights.
As diplomatic as she is, it is clear a sore soft spot has been bruised judging from the wobbly unconvincing response that follows from the Cypriot doctor.
In the substantive election, Drs. Kwabena Opoku Adusei and Oheneba Owusu-Danso will be elected and re elected Vice President for the West Africa region and General Secretary of the CMA respectively.
Then will follow the first global symposium of health systems research in Montreux that will witness the powerful gathering of 1200 participants from a 100 different nations – the richness of the discussions underlined by the diverse and varying experiences of an assortment of health system researchers, policy makers, donor community, students etc.
Clearly, if there ever was an opportunity for any country to state its case on the global platform, this was it.
In a regal opening ceremony replete with classical music, Dr. Judith Rodin, President of Rockefeller Foundation will tout Ghana’s investment of “approximately $115 million in institutional reform over six years.
This is equivalent to 2.5 percent of its total health expenditure. This investment, together with a major health reform effort that was financed by a newly introduced value added tax, enabled a dramatic boost in coverage …, even as the country’s health expenditure as a percentage of GDP remained close to 6 percent.”
In further references, she would mention a recent workshop in India at which “health officials from Ghana, Vietnam, Rwanda, India, Indonesia, and the Philippines are brought together to trade best practices and share ideas for implementing universal health coverage.”
In one grand plenary and numerous breakout sessions, the voice of Ghana will resonate with insightful presentations on its national health insurance, quality improvement work, on going work in the MDGs, etc.
Prof Irene Agyepong, Professor of the Prince Claus Chair in Utrecht University and a director of the Ghana Health Service made a powerful presentation on the political economy of health policy formulation and implementation using Ghana as a case study.
If the feedback received on her presentations was anything to go by, then it would be fairly safe to conclude that she leveraged well for Ghana.
So insistent were some of her new found admirers that special one-on-one meetings had to be arranged for her input in their on- going research work.
It is announced in a session that a Foundation will soon be floating a call for funding research work in African countries.
Speaking to the official later, he lets drop that offers to Ghana might be limited somewhat! Further probing reveals that “Ghana under Prof Irene Agyepong’s leadership has managed to sequester more than half of the first phase funding” which she has subsequently used to create space and opportunities for many younger colleagues whom she is mentoring!
Apparently, this mentoring trait has been noticed and is the subject of an intense heart wrenching conversation between two young Nigerian doctors.
How do we harness the diverse talents in-country and enormous international goodwill that Ghana enjoys to accelerate the achievement of health outcomes? How do we align research work to practical questions and provide feasible policy options to policy makers?
How do we build individual and institutional capacity to undertake research at all levels and more importantly create the platform that enables the ready translation of knowledge into policies adopted by politicians?
How can the voice of civil society be mobilized and strengthened in order to constrain researchers, policy makers and politicians to focus on the outcomes that make a difference to us?
How do we get project Ghana airborne by moving away from individualized efforts and achievements to the synergized joint success of the whole? How does Africa learn from each other?
How do we find the balance between collaborating with others while defining our own research agenda as African nations with all the funding it will entail?
Personally, it is worth acknowledging at this juncture, the gallant efforts of Prof. Fred Binka, himself a big international player and Dean of Legon’s School of Public Health, and in-depth Network that facilitated my engagement in what has turned out to be an invaluable experience. I appreciate the opportunity.
It is time to show greater leadership within the health system and other sectors that will marshal all this enormous goodwill and talent for revolutionary change.
We can and should be doing more because all the pedigree notwithstanding, we are still very far from nirvana!