Guest Blog: Who watches WHO?

This blog was written by Megan Arthur, PhD candidate in Social Policy, University of Edinburgh. In it she reflects on her experiences as part of the People's Health Movement on the 'WHO Watch', where a team of PHM volunteers attends WHO bodies' meetings to follow the debate, talk with delegates and make statements following this. Follow Megan on Twitter: @MeganAMArthur 


Who watches WHO?

I was very fortunate to have been informed about the opportunity to participate in the World Health Organization (WHO) Watch by one of my PhD supervisors and mentors, Anuj Kapilashrami (PHM Scotland and University of Edinburgh). I completed the short application form and had the privilege of being selected to join the international team of volunteers.

Coordinated by the People's Health Movement (PHM) Global office in New Delhi, the team began discussions over Skype to prepare for the Watch approximately two months before the Watching event (either at the Executive Board (EB) meetings in January or at the World Health Assembly (WHA) in May). These Skype meetings helped to familiarize team members with the process and steps required to prepare for the WHO Watch workshop and the monitoring and advocacy activities taking place at the WHO meetings.

Before the team meets together in Geneva, each team member must review WHO and PHM documentation relevant to all of the agenda items that will be covered at the meeting (EB or WHA) (for examples see the WHO Tracker website: Team members should have a familiarity with, and think critically about, each issue. In addition, during a Skype meeting each person will select 2-3 topics on which they will prepare a brief presentation (about 5 minutes) to help kick off and facilitate the group discussion on that topic during the workshop.

The team meets in Geneva one week before the WHO meeting (EB or WHA) for a four-day workshop in which each of the agenda items is discussed and the team decides collectively what will be the focus of advocacy efforts for the Watch at that meeting. Priority issues will be further developed into policy briefs to support advocacy efforts with Member State delegates, and statements that will be delivered verbally to Member States during the meeting. During the workshop the team also prepares for the advocacy efforts and other tasks that will be undertaken during the WHO meeting, such as note-taking, social media posting, website updating, scheduling, daily reports, etc.

Following the workshop there is usually a one-day civil society meeting ahead of the EB/WHA which provides an opportunity for sharing ideas and building collective advocacy efforts, as well as an excellent forum for meeting like-minded advocates. This year (2017) some of the Watchers made brief presentations based on the policy brief topics, which facilitated feedback and collaboration with other civil society organizations.

In terms of the commitment on behalf of Watchers, participation in the Watch requires the allocation of time for preparation during the 1-2 months ahead of the WHO meeting, and 2-2.5 weeks spent in Geneva in January and/or May. Travel, accommodation, and a per diem are funded through PHM, therefore participation in the Watch should not require out-of-pocket expenses. The time spent in Geneva is an intense period, often with long days, however this is more than compensated for by the experience that is gained through participation and the contribution made to democratizing global health governance, as discussed below.

WHO Watch Process

Value of Participation in WHO Watch

Participation in the WHO Watch is valuable both to the participant and to the wider community of civil society advocates and civil society more broadly. Watchers contribute to the representation of civil society within crucial global health governance processes, helping to democratize WHO meetings as multilateral fora that play an important role in setting the agenda and establishing policies for health worldwide.

The Watch facilitates the work of civil society advocates who come to WHO, both by providing presentations and summary documents (policy briefs and statements) about key issues on the meeting agenda, but also through the note-taking, Skype channel updates, and daily reports that are carried out by Watchers during the meetings. In particular, this year we received feedback that the real-time updates posted on the Watch Skype channel were very helpful in allowing colleagues who couldn’t be in Geneva to follow along, and for local colleagues to stay up-to-date with the ever-shifting agenda at these meetings. The coordinating work done by Watchers helps to build a sense of community among like-minded civil society advocates and academics within the large and sometimes overwhelming WHO EB and WHA meetings. Moreover, the daily reports help to provide an up-to-date digest of the key discussions taking place.

For Watchers, the WHO Watch is not only rewarding in terms of the contributions described above, it is a tremendous opportunity to learn and build relationships with global leaders and fellow people who advocate for the equitable and universal right to health. The Watch almost has a summer camp feeling as a short-term intensive collaborative effort with like-minded people from around the world, which instilled in me a sense of hopefulness about collective action for Health for All at the global level. I think for many of the team it also imparted a better understanding of the link between local and global-level processes and a renewed sense of the possibility for local advocacy, not to mention national contacts for country representatives. Meeting country delegates and other non-state actor participants humanizes these high-level meetings and processes, creating a sense of expanded opportunity for advocacy.

As a learning experience, I found it to be truly invaluable to be in the room with WHO Member State delegates, following the discussions and gaining insight into how global health governance actually happens. Reviewing the full range of agenda items covered in these meetings requires a considerable time commitment, however in return you gain a comprehensive overview of a very wide range of topics within global health, a rare opportunity. I found it very helpful to participate in the EB meetings in January ahead of the larger WHA in May in order to better understand WHO processes and build a greater depth of understanding about the wide range of agenda items. The Watch is an excellent opportunity to learn about the network of organizations in Geneva and around the world that fight for Health for All and how they engage in these processes.

Overall, the Watch requires commitment and hard work, but it is all carried out in the spirit of collaboration and in an environment geared towards mentorship and learning. It is an invaluable experience for building a sense of community and possibility within global health advocacy, and for developing an excellent understanding of WHO processes and a wide range of topics and governance issues within global health.

WHO Watch website:
For an insightful reflection on her participation in the WHO Watch, also see this article by Simrin Kafle from PHM Nepal: