Interview with Mary Robinson
26 May 2008
The first edition of the Geneva Health Forum took place in Geneva from 30 August to 1st September 2006. ICVolunteers was involved in the overall organization, with volunteers dealing with logistics, interpretation and reporting. The online news produced by ICV in collaboration with MCART featured a number of interviews and session summaries, including one with Mary Robinson, the first woman President of Ireland (1990-1997) and more recently United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997-2002).
Mary Robinson shared with the conference team some of the main challenges at hand when it comes to access to health for all: accountability, financing, the brain drain and the responsibility of those who have the means to make a difference, such as the private sector. She pointed out that the high turnout at the Forum was an indicator of the need for it and the urgency of discussing access to health. Access for all is the concern of all.
Q: Accountability of politicians for decisions affecting human health and dignity is a key issue. If everybody agrees on the principle, the question remains of how to assess their achievements and how to enforce accountability?
I speak more and more about accountability including accountability in the social context. Human rights help greatly. We know what the legal commitments mean for countries. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has provided guidance to governments and standards against which they can be held accountable. We have more and more ways to measure their ability to fulfill the right to health. Some of the core obligations such as ensuring that no one is discriminated against in terms of access to basic treatment are to be fulfilled regardless of available resources. The increasing sophistication of civil society groups also enhances social accountability. The Treatment Action Campaign case in South Africa proved that governments can be required to implement comprehensive and coordinated programmes in order to realize the right of access to medical treatment. On 4th September, I will be in London to help Paul Hunt, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, to defend his ideas on this matter with the UK Government. It is an important move because we need to keep accountable rich as well as poor countries.
Q: Requesting from developing countries that they finance themselves the access to health for all at a national level seems unrealistic. On the other hand it appears that financing provided by the developed countries for the South has short term effects. Is there a methodology that could be followed to obtain long-term sustainable results?
The current situation is actually shocking. Public health systems in poor countries are broken, in particular in rural areas where many problems surface. We need absolutely to change the approach. It is being recognized that the local parameters have to be far more taken into account. Many errors have been made by the IMF and the World Bank, which actually weakened the ability of countries to take local action. The new trend amongst donors to privilege general budget support since the Paris declaration on aid will put more responsibility on the countries' decision makers. Health ministers will have to be very skilled managers which is not necessarily always the case currently. In quite a number of countries corruption also remains a major issue. Everything should be done to support health ministers and their ministries in order to allow them to manage funding from the GAVI (Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization), NGOs, foundations and other donors and to enable them to meet, amongst other things, the Abuja declaration which targets that 15% of national budgets would go to their health systems.
Q: When one thinks of resources, a major one is the human resource. Developing countries suffer from an ongoing brain drain affecting deeply their health systems. How to stop and even reverse this trend?
It is of utmost importance to stop the brain drain. Mid-level workers need to be trained. These middle-skilled personnel are undervalued and invisible. Yet, these health personnel show more sustainability while not being tempted by migration like highly trained health professionals. A good example of this is the use of Tanzania's paramedical personnel to dispense anti-retroviral medication. On 12 September, we will have a high level meeting in New York on migration. The aim is to stimulate more bilateral agreements between countries to avoid permanent migration and to enhance shared training efforts. All countries should share responsibility in this field. In this respect, the pull factor is of importance, meaning that the rich may agree to train more. In the US, where I am currently living, 500,000 nurses and 200,000 doctors are needed by the year 2015. Nurses are being imported. The fact of acquiring them cheaply by not having to educate them is unacceptable. There are many ideas to think about.
Q: The pharmaceutical industry is often criticized. Do you think there is evolution to provide medicine at lower costs? Is there a will within those companies to become socially responsible beyond just a superficial marketing move?
We regard the private sector as an important player either providing good resources or a negative influence. We are keen to see them fully responsible and specific companies have taken this direction. Paul Hunt, the UN Special Rapporteur on Health, is developing guidelines related to the human right to health. The subject is vast and goes from intellectual property to pricing. It is evident that we need a structure and guidelines and pharmaceutical companies, as well as all other stakeholders, have to buy into this.
Q: What are your expectations from the debates during the present Forum and in what way can they influence decision makers?
The Forum comes at the right time. This is proven by the fact that the attendance overshot all expectations. I am convinced that we can initiate change in most of the fields which are on the agenda. The dynamics exist to accelerate a breakthrough in areas such as safer food and water supply, improving educational levels and other social determinants. The Millennium Development Goals have set a 0.7% of GDP level for the aid to be provided by the North to the South. The US Administration is today more willing to commit itself as well. All of this needs to be thought through. The errors of the past often found their origin in the non-coordinated approach of health issues and systems. This Forum gives the opportunity to encompass government representatives, healthcare specialists, donors and NGOs, to strengthen sustainable long-term health systems and to develop common views. With the human rights as a framework it seems that the objective of access to health for all will certainly have made some progress through the conference.
Q: A few weeks ago you attended the World Conference on AIDS in Toronto. What was your overall impression and what conclusions could be drawn from the debates?
My impression was quite similar to the one that prevailed during the previous conference two years ago in Bangkok. A lot of emphasis was put on the progress to be expected from fundamental scientific work. Subjects such as the status of development of microbicides were at the centre point of the majority of the debates, but the use of female condoms got little mention in the context of sub-Saharan Africa. The ability of women and girls to protect themselves from contracting the virus is as important as the process to prepare effective microbicides. The issue of the identification of risk groups did not seem to draw a lot of attention. It appeared as if there was a tendency not to want to address real problems. In a sense it was quite disappointing. Community groups know what they are doing and what they need, but they did not always get enough attention. The focus was more on well known guests than on rallies on women's issues and rights. A number of key issues were not addressed. The planning for the next conference in Mexico needs to put the priorities right.
For more information about Mary Robinson's current activities and work with Realizing Rights, see http://www.realizingrights.org.
Posted: 2008-5-26 Updated: 2012-4-05