White Ribbon Alliance


David vs. Goliath?

November 8, 2014
This article was originally published on Huffington Post

By Betsy McCallon, WRA Executive Director and Brigid McConville, WRA Director of Media and Outreach

How does a group like ours - which represents mostly disadvantaged women and believes in change from the bottom up - speak truth to power at the UN and survive to tell the tale? Indeed, how do we even get heard?

Humor helps, as does courage, creativity and the conviction that it's high time.

Truth is over the last decade (at least) there has been growing frustration over the same people taking the stage at global health conferences. Last year, during the UN General Assembly in New York, this led colleagues to hold a drinking game for each time a 'Usual Suspect' spoke! We heard jokes that the speakers might as well charter a plane and go to all their meetings together. But it isn't really funny; not when you do the sums on how much these conferences cost and not when you realize that we're not assessing if these leaders do indeed warrant the platforms they are given. If they are so good, why haven't they solved the problem yet? Why haven't birthing women and their newborns stopped dying?

The problem, from our point of view, being the huge injustices in reproductive health, which means that girls and women around the world are still routinely married too young, denied family planning and left to die in pregnancy and childbirth for lack of life saving services. So we decided to rattle a few cages by printing a tabloid newspaper, the CITIZENS POST, demanding that the 'Usual Suspects' (as in the movie poster) move over and make way for those citizen leaders who are really making change happen in their own communities.

CITIZENSPOST2-FINAL_Page_1 As with any challenge to authority, this was initially greeted by nervous comments from our peers such as "You're brave!", and while many backed it privately they were not so keen to go public. That began to change as soon as some of our 'usual suspects' responded positively - and within days leading figures on the UN stage (Ted Turner and Ray Chambers amongst them) were congratulating us and promising support.

We targeted particular leaders who are well known in global health (and more than just on the poster!) because they had already declared their belief in citizen engagement as crucial to sustainable change. Almost all of these individuals then demonstrated their leadership by actively commending the campaign and making space for citizen leaders. We look forward to continuing to work with them as we move forward. For example, Richard Horton, Kathy Calvin and Ted Turner all called themselves 'Usual Suspects' on their platforms before handing over to citizen leaders to speak in their place.

World Health Organization Director General Margaret Chan and her Deputy Flavia Bustreo enthusiastically commended the campaign as they recognize the important role citizens can - and must - play in accelerated progress and want to play their part to support these efforts.

Asking for space for these citizen leaders was not a token exercise to give voice to those on the 'frontlines' who conventionally are expected to tell sad and heart wrenching stories. Instead, we set out to show success, showcasing the evidence that progress can be greatly accelerated with strong citizen engagement. With less than 500 days remaining until the end of the Millennium Development Goals, we highlighted how much more can be done if citizen leaders are supported to lead the change in their own countries and to work with and push governments to deliver on their commitments.

Citizens do have an immense role to play in translating government commitments beyond New York and beyond the capital cities to ensure that they are delivered. This often means the rather unsexy work of identifying barriers to commitments being delivered and then systematically advocating for the changes required. It means bringing together communities, health care providers, district leaders, and elected officials to discuss what isn't working and coming up with practical solutions.

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