March 6, 2009

Coordinated efforts key to tackling global health woes

Coordinated efforts key to tackling global health woes

Despite the attention paid to poverty, the gap between rich and poor around the world is growing, international philanthropist Eric Thurman said during a Vanderbilt-sponsored forum last week.

“Food emergencies in Africa … are three times more common today than they were 20 years ago,” said Thurman, co-author of the 2007 bestseller about microcredit entitled “A Billion Bootstraps.”

“African income has fallen by a quarter,” he continued. “Makes you wonder, has something been wrong with the top-down solutions that have been proposed? I absolutely believe that the most powerful change happens 'bottom up,' happens grass roots in communities by … hard direct work.”

Thurman was the keynote speaker during the forum, hosted by the Vanderbilt University Institute for Global Health to encourage networking among individuals and agencies involved in efforts to reduce disease and human suffering throughout the world.

More than 100 people attended the daylong meeting at the Scarritt-Bennett Center.

Progress has been slow in countries like Mozambique, where the institute has undertaken a major project to extend HIV/AIDS treatment, because of the challenges of extreme poverty, “but also because we are not working together as well as we should be,” said the institute's deputy director, Alfredo Vergara, Ph.D.

In addition to health care, “we really need to be able to address social and economic issues to make lasting changes in people's health and well-being,” Vergara said.

To that end, Vanderbilt is exploring a partnership with Habitat for Humanity to provide housing for children who have been orphaned by AIDS.

“It doesn't make sense for 100 NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to come into a province and set up offices and hire staff when we're doing the same administrative support,” said Mark Estes, national director for Habitat for Humanity in Mozambique.

It's also essential to motivate and empower communities to participate in their own development, several speakers said.

“Local people have survival strategies that have worked for centuries. We forget that,” noted Pamela Crane, Ph.D., water projects manager for Franklin-based Blood:Water Mission. “We need to honor what they can and can't do and where they want to go.”