DPI Conference opens in Australia

30 Aug 2010

(Melbourne, Australia) — “Advancing global health is essential to the Millennium Development Goals, and you are essential to advancing global health,” said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon via video message, thanking the 1,200 non-governmental organizations representatives in attendance at the sixty-third annual United Nations DPI/NGO Conference in Melbourne, Australia.

The central concern of Mr Ban’s remarks on day one of the three-day Conference was the need to improve women’s and children’s health — “the area where we are most behind”.  Simple measures could make a huge difference, he told the gathering, whose activism the United Nations not only valued, but depended upon.

“We have the know-how to build strong health systems  We have the resources to ensure that women have access to the services they need, when and where they need them.  And, we have the Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health, which brings together all stakeholders — Governments, NGOs, foundations and the private sector,” he said.
In that vein, the Secretary-General stressed that partnership would be crucial to ending preventable deaths, and he told civil society participants that their role was “invaluable”, with their unique presence on the ground and in communities, and their understanding of the daily challenges faced by the most vulnerable.  They also had the passion and networks to spread the messages far and wide.

Picking up that thread in a keynote address this morning, Michel Sidibe, Executive Director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) said that three decades ago, there were few advocates for HIV/AIDS, but the non-governmental organizations were there when no one else was. They were there accessing Governments, they were researching to break the conspiracy of silence around the disease; and, they had later helped to negotiate the price of antiretroviral drugs.  Civil society had forged a social transformation, which would never have taken place without them, and they had helped to mobilize resources along the way.  Mr Sidibe urged them “to muster one energy, one force” for transforming the public health debate. The Australia Conference — the third outside United Nations Headquarters in New York — brings together a wide range of actors in the vibrant city of Melbourne, in an effort to open a space in which civil society in concert with other actors can contribute, not just to managing disease, but to fostering global health and, in turn, promoting achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, three of which directly concern health. Through the United Nations-civil society partnership, which was launched officially in 1968 when the Public Information Department first began associating non-governmental organizations, an effort will be made at the Conference to ensure that the health status of individuals and populations is seen, not only as a barometer of progress towards meeting the internationally-agreed development goals, but also as a motivator. For that purpose, the Meeting has a full agenda that includes four round tables, on the role of the non-governmental organizations and civil society in helping to achieve the Millennium Development Goals; equity, rights and progress towards the Goals’ achievement; strengthening an integrated and systems approach to achieving the health-related Goals; and achieving the Goals in today’s changing world.

Numerous workshops were slated as opportunities for the non-governmental organizations to interact in greater depth, in an informal setting, on the issues.  The scope of topics is evident, and notable among them are:  “The Unfinished Agenda of Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights”; “A New Paradigm of a Healthy Lifestyle for Peace and Sustainability”; “Health Care Outreach to the Poor as an Experiential Context for Human Rights Education”; “Slipping Through the Cracks — Women and Infectious Diseases”; and “Code Red:  The Aboriginal Health Crisis in Australia”.

Opening statements this morning were also made by United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information Kiyotaka Akasaka; Bob McMullen, Parliamentary Secretary for International Development Assistance, on behalf of the Prime Minister of Australia; Navanethem Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, via videotape; and Barbara Flick Nicol, indigenous health activist.  A welcome on behalf of the non-governmental organizations was delivered by Mary Norton, Conference Chair.

The Conference will meet again formally at 4:30 p.m. today to take up round table I on the role of non-governmental organizations and civil society in helping to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.

Opening Ceremony, Statements

Participants were ushered into the Conference Room at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre and given a traditional welcome to the country with indigenous live musical performances, including the premier performance of an aria from the first indigenous opera.  A locally-produced curtain raiser focusing on the importance of the Millennium Development Goals set the stage for the formal start of the opening ceremony. An indigenous elder, wishing the Conference all success, invited participants to close their eyes and feel Australia and the urgent need to achieve the Millennium Development Goals for all the people of the world, through the indigenous dance and music they were about to see and hear.
Opening remarks were made by United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information KIYOTAKA AKASAKA, who said the meeting had come to Australia in recognition of the country’s strong support and rich contribution to the United Nations since its founding in 1945.  It had come to the beautiful city of Melbourne in recognition of its history, culture and care for its citizens, as well as its embrace of those around the world.

Mr Akasaka thanked the Federal Government of Australia and the state of Victoria for their commitment and energy.  “Thank you, Melbourne!” he enthused.  Participants were here to take action on what was surely the most pressing issue in the world:  global health.  Every culture, from East to West, North to South, shared a similar problem; the fate of nations worldwide was inextricably linked to the health of their peoples.  That was seen today most acutely in Pakistan, where 17 million flood victims now faced an emergency health crisis with mounting cases of water-borne and communicable diseases. In nations across the world, it was clear that investments in health yielded significant returns, he said, adding that study after study had showed that investment in good health was cost effective and that investment in women and children reduced poverty and stimulated the economy. Indeed, he said, health was at the very core of the Millennium Development Goals.  Achieving the Goals was essential for peace, development, stability, and for addressing human rights equality.  In less than one month, world leaders would gather at the United Nations in New York for a summit on the Goals to make a strong push for their achievement by 2015, a mere five years away. This Conference, therefore, was a crucial opportunity to hear the voices of those present — the voices of civil society and non-governmental organizations ahead of the September summit, he said.  It was an opportunity for all present to help to narrow the differences between public health policy and prejudice and the often harsh world of people’s daily lives.  It was also an opportunity to promote action for health where it mattered most, in districts and communities.  A broad range of complex issues would be examined in the next three days.  Each participant would continue to play an important role in the growing global coalition for health and in fulfilment of the promises of the development Goals. 

BOB MCMULLEN, Australian Parliamentary Secretary for International Development Assistance, speaking on behalf of the Prime Minister of Australia, thanked the Conference organizers for holding the largest ever United Nations event of its kind in his country, adding “we’re the appropriate choice,” being the only major developed economy almost completely surrounded by developing countries.  Australia, he said, was surrounded by some of the most vulnerable and fragile countries whose progress towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals was mixed.

He noted that the Asia Pacific region was home to two-thirds of the world’s poor.  Maternal deaths accounted for almost half the global total, yet the region attracted only one third of the total global aid.  The Conference should bring collective ideas and experiences to bear on such challenges.  His key message was that not enough progress was being made to achieve the health Goals, nor was sufficient attention being given to the increasing importance of non-communicable diseases not directly targeted by the Millennium Development Goals.

For Australia and its neighbours, the Conference was an important opportunity to raise awareness about the need to meet the internationally-agreed challenges, he said, specifically, to halve poverty, and achieve the eight goals to advance human development.  The Millennium Development Goals had been an excellent tool for explaining the development objectives to the general public, and that must continue if support was to be maintained for increasing official development assistance (ODA) at a time of fiscal constraint.

The test for the international community was to move quickly to meet the targets by 2015, and each representative in the room had an important role to play in that regard.  Governments could only do so much, and their decisions were necessarily shaped by many factors and players.  Furthermore, collaboration could result in more effective aid and greater harmonization.  Australia, for its part, was committed to being an “international citizen” and to improving the lives of people less fortunate than its own, particularly in the region.

Australia was also committed to increase its aid spending to 0.5 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP), and it was on track to achieve that, he said, adding that this had been a bipartisan commitment in the recent election.  Australians, he stressed, were also very enthusiastic volunteers.  The country was focused mainly on Asia and the Pacific region because of its geographical location.  Maternal mortality rates in the area had dropped significantly, but remained high and had increased in Afghanistan, Fiji and Laos; they also remained unacceptably high in Papua New Guinea.  At least one in 20 children died in this region before the age of five.  But Australia was also developing a more truly global programme and had increased its aid to Africa, realizing that the Millennium Development Goals would not be achieved without more progress on the Continent. In his keynote address, United Nations Secretary-General BAN KI-MOON said the vibrant, multicultural city of Melbourne had so much to offer the world.  The United Nations not only valued its activism, but depended on it.  “North and South; indigenous peoples; small island developing States — we need to hear your voices.  And we need you now more than ever,” he said. There had been gains on many fronts towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals, he stated, adding, however, that there was still some distance to go, and meeting the commitments on health was central to that effort. Welcoming the focus on women’s and children’s health, he said that was “the area where we are most behind”.  Yet, evidence showed that it was also an opportunity for the biggest return on investment. Simple measures could make a huge difference, he suggested, adding, “We have the know-how to build strong health systems.  We have the resources to ensure that women have access to the services they need, when and where they need them.  And, we have the Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health, which brings together all stakeholders — Governments, NGOs, foundations and the private sector”.

Stressing that partnership would be crucial to ending preventable deaths, he told civil society participants that their role was “invaluable”, with their unique presence on the ground, in communities, and their understanding of the daily challenges faced by the most vulnerable.  “You have the passion and networks to spread our messages far and wide,” he urged.

“Thank you for joining forces,” Mr Ban encouraged.  “Advancing global health is essential to the (Millennium Development Goals), and you are essential to advancing global health.”

Wishing participants a successful conference, he said he looked forward to working with them “to keep the promise of the (Millennium Development Goals)”.

NAVANETHEM PILLAY, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, via videotape, said positive results on achieving the Millennium Development Goals had been uneven, and often left unaddressed structural conditions of discrimination and inequality that condemned far too many people to a life of hunger, illness and vulnerability.  A human rights approach to underdevelopment helped to identify and tackle inequality and social exclusion at their roots.  It also created a framework that levelled the playing field, bolstering the accountability of Governments, donor countries, and non-governmental organizations regarding action taken or omitted.

She said that the participation of “rights holders” was a key component of effective policies.  In designing solutions, the most vulnerable must be engaged as proponents and engineers of change.  Policies must be made truly representative, but they must also empower communities and individuals to claim their entitlements and rights.  Governments that had explicitly linked human rights obligations to development of Millennium Development Goals policies had made the greatest advances.  Health policies that purposely reached out to the poor and marginalized exemplified that.

Several human rights institutions defined health as a right, she said, pointing out that article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights upheld the right of all to enjoy the highest standard of physical health.  Many other rights depended on the enjoyment of health and access to health care, which was at the very core of the Millennium Development Goals.  And that, in turn, curbed extreme poverty, offered education for all, removed gender inequality, reduced child and maternal mortality, ensured environmental sustainability, and so on.  None of the Goals could be achieved without consideration of the full range of human rights, including the right to health. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that up to 98 per cent of the annual 500,000 deaths related to pregnancy and childbirth complications could be prevented with low-cost targeted interventions, policies and services, she noted.  Despite that, maternal health remained the least successful of the eight Goals.  Failure to achieve progress on that vital goal indicated a failure to implement key human rights principles, such as equality and non-discrimination.  Drivers preventing maternal deaths included access to health care and education, and equal economic opportunities.  States must help women attain those rights and recognize that human rights violations were intrinsic triggers of maternal mortality. Civil society was an indispensable partner for achieving that and all other Millennium Development Goals, she said.  It insisted that human rights be placed at the centre of policies designed to fulfil the Goals and to save lives; civil society’s help, ideas, energy and passion remained crucial to that endeavour.

In a keynote address, MICHEL SIDIBE, Executive Director, UNAIDS, asserted that the Millennium Development Goals were not just goals, but a movement.  The call to implement the health goal was a call for peace and for equity.  The AIDS story was a story of our age; a passionate call for social justice, a mission for opportunity.  Ten years ago, there was less than $500 million to fight HIV/AIDS, whereas today, there was $60 billion.  “That would never have been possible without you.”  In the last five years, the numbers of people receiving treatment had multiplied; there were now more than 5 million people on “the drugs” and new infections had been reduced by 70 per cent.  In Papua New Guinea, which he had recently visited, he said, the prevalence rate had declined, with Australia’s help. It was impossible to reach the Millennium Development Goals without an inclusive governance system, and that civil society had helped to change, he continued.  Today, civil society was involved in almost every policy and decision, ensuring that those embraced the needs of the poorest segment of society.  Indeed, civil society was at the centre of activities in the realm of HIV/AIDS, pushing for universal access to drugs, for example, reaching the unreachable, and putting in place delivery systems . “It is time to harness the passion and the expertise you have been developing during the last 30 years,” which had created a social movement around HIV.

He said the Development Goals were an “indivisible set”.  He also called for the elimination of mother-to-child transmission.  It was unacceptable to have 400,000 babies born with HIV in the developing world, while that was not happening in the developed world.  His vision was very simple:  he would accept nothing less than zero new infections, zero discrimination, and zero AIDS-related deaths.  But “zero” would be reached only by harnessing the dynamism and creativity on a scale marshalled by the non-governmental organizations and civil society.  “I am so happy to have joined you together in Melbourne,” he concluded.

In another keynote address, BARBARA FLICK NICOL, introduced by Mr Akasaka as an Australian indigenous health activist with a 40-year history of working in Government and with non-governmental organizations on a broad range of subjects, talked about the “footprints” of her people, who had lived in Australia for countless generations.  She challenged the Government of Australia to give more effort to reaching the Millennium Development Goals and issued a challenge to her own people to stop abusing alcohol, their children, cigarettes, and all the other things that endangered their health and which no amount of money could change.

She said her people had made many gains, but the gap in life expectancy was still too great.  In one community where she worked, the life expectancy of indigenous men was 38.  That was an “appalling” situation for a developed country.  At the same time, there had been successes:  indigenous women were increasingly overcoming inequality and gaining positions of power, for which they were preparing the next generation.  But, it was not just the clinical side of giving birth that was important to the indigenous people; it was their cultural practices, and many were “locked away”.

For example, she explained traditionally a mother’s placenta should be buried in tribal lands so the child was recognized as part of the country, but the local hospitals did not understand why they should give the placenta to the family.  Yet, that ceremony was so important to maintaining indigenous culture and traditions.  Legislation was supposed to enable indigenous people to take advantage of development and job opportunities, but development must be socially just and consider the regeneration of the land; it must not be based on political gains or buying votes.  But this was exactly what was happening now in Queensland. To become empowered in a developed nation like Australia meant engaging productively in the real economy, so access to such opportunities must be made easier for indigenous people, she said.  Her grandchildren needed to understand that they could become scientists if they so chose.  Not all problems were structural, she acknowledged, pointing to petrol sniffing and other drug abuse among her people.  “The buck stops with the grandmother,” and she took that role very seriously.  So, it did not matter how many millions of dollars for health were directed to her people if they continued to abuse themselves.  At the same time, they were fighting for survival, for which they needed inner strength and a Government that worked with them and “cut away the ties of bureaucracy”.

“Pull back the blinds and have a look into our hearts and into our minds and create strong, real partnerships for us to grow as one Australia where there is harmony and peace among us all,” she implored. 

Welcoming the non-governmental organizations, MARY NORTON, Chair of the Conference and Co-Chair of the Planning Committee, said “We have come here today, from every part of the world, to share a common mission, to advance global health — and to foster achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.”  To accomplish those objectives, she insisted that non-governmental organizations, civil society and Governments all needed a commitment to values of social justice, equity and quality health care for all people.

In developing countries, people lost their lives because of poverty, hunger, and economic constraints, as well as a lack of political will and adequately trained health professionals.  “Although we are linked to an extraordinary degree, yet the disparities in health outcomes and inequity keep expanding.”  Today, for example, 6,000 people would die from contaminated drinking water.  “Can you imagine the staggering numbers that have died since we started planning this Conference in January?” she asked.

She said that if the notion of health included the social determinants of literacy, nutrition, housing, contaminated water and lack of sanitation, then the view was acceptable that all the Millennium Development Goals contributed to improving health for all people.  The meeting was an opportunity to speak on behalf of those whose voices could not be heard here:  colleagues and friends who had died in service of the underserved and marginalized; as well as those women who died bringing new life into the world, and from preventable and treatable illness and lack of trained health professionals.  Those who died from natural and manmade disasters should also be given voice. “Let us commit by the end of this Conference to have an outcome declaration and, more importantly, outcome action plans to sustain achieved gains of the MDGs, and for those MDGs most lagging behind,” she concluded.