October 1, 2011

Modesta, a Malawi mother-to-be, groans in pain from a contraction.  She is in labor.  Not too long ago, she may have been alone during this time, with only her medically untrained family for support.  She would have risked complications and even death for her and her child because her village had no clinic and was too remote to reach any medical facilities in time.

Today however, she is accompanied by a trained mid-wife, one of the numerous initiatives being taken by the government of Malawi as part of the country’s commitment to the year old “Every Woman Every Child” campaign launched by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Five of the 200 partners in this effort convened on Tuesday, October 25, 2011 at the School for International and Public Affairs (SIPA) for a panel event hosted by the United Nations Studies Program (UNSP). Professor Elisabeth Lindenmayer moderated the evening panel discussion, which included representatives from each of the branches of the United Nations, namely the secretariat, the agencies, the member states, civil society and the increasingly important partner in global initiatives, the private sector. 

Robert Orr, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Strategic Planning and Policy Coordination, called Every Woman Every Child a, “Revolution in the Making.”  During the panel, he stated it is in fact three revolutions in one. 

Revolution one consists of a revolution in ambitions. This references the unprecedented global ambition to take the issues seen as least important and bring them to the forefront of global importance.

“This initiative is to take the caboose of the MDG train and make it the engine,” he said, explaining that without improving the health of women and children, the other MDGs simply cannot be achieved. 

The second revolution concerns the approach to addressing this issue. It is a truly “multi-sectoral” attempt, as seen by the broad range of panel members, to engage all members of the international community to commit to making women’s and children’s health a priority. 

The last revolution Mr. Orr spoke of was the revolution of results that has occurred since the beginning of this campaign, only one year ago. Every speaker had something positive to say concerning the improvements that have begun as a result of Every Woman Every Child. 

Ian Pett, Chief of Health Systems and Strategic Planning at UNICEF spoke of the decrease in maternal mortality by almost half in just a short time, from 600,000 maternal deaths to 300,000. He admits, however, that is it still much less of an improvement than was initially intended by the MDGs. 

Scott P. Ratzan, MD, Vice President Global Health at Johnson and Johnson spoke of the private sector initiative by his company to help 120 million women by 2015 through increased use of new technologies to improve health literacy. 

Janna Oberdorg, representing the non-profit Women Deliver, recounted the real change in political will she has seen recently, allowing the goals of improving of women’s and children’s health to be truly accomplished. 

Lastly, we heard from Janet Z. Karim, a representative of the Permanent Mission of Malawi to the United Nations, who recounted improvements being felt by the recipients of this initiative, the women and children of the member states. Her talk included the story of Modesta, a pregnant woman in Malawi reaping the benefits of improved medical care. 

This question of accountability brought about a number of questions from the audience, which included both students from throughout Columbia University as well as individuals from civil society. 

What exactly this accountability consists of is still unclear, even after a round of responses, as well as input from a representative from Canada working on the actual accountability framework, who was in the audience of the event. Whether it will go beyond, or even include, the traditional “naming and shaming” that is the standard practice for human rights workers remains to be seen. 

Generally, accountability is hard to uphold in the global arena, particularly within a system such as the UN, which requires many decisions to be based on an overall consensus from the 193 member states. There is often politics that prevent many governments and individuals from being “named and shamed,” and the United Nations operate on the good will of its member states. 

In effect, member states are the ones who decide whether or not to enforce a commitment or prioritize an issue.  Previously, issues concerning women were not seen as important enough to merit such actions. There is great hope that this accountability framework will be able to enforce commitments that have been made and penalize those who break them. 

In response to the last question of the night, posed by Professor Lindenmayer, on what is the most important thing needed to achieve these new goals, the consensus was, leadership, political will, and, perhaps most important of all given the truly global and complex nature of the problem, partnership.


 Zara Rapoport (MIA ‘12)