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There are 17 Sustainable Development Goals: The solution to meeting any of them lies in how they inter-relate

Friday, 29 September 2017 13:25 GMT

A woman collects water from a stream outside the village of Tsemera in Ethiopia's northern Amhara region, February 13, 2016. REUTERS/Katy Migiro

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

We need to work together to develop holistic solutions

I imagine many of you reading this regularly see a doctor. The idea that you would never have a check-up in your lifetime, or have access to even basic healthcare is unfathomable. But that’s the reality for many of the 500 million people grappling with one or more neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) across Africa. The world is full of complex problems like this; famine, climate change, or in this case a lack of healthcare for all. No one person, charity, government, or NGO can solve these big issues on their own, but what‘s encouraging, is that the need for a broader approach, (often termed a systems approach) is now widely acknowledged as the way forward. As I write this, I am thinking about the opportunities for partnership and collaboration that events like the WEF Sustainable Development Impact Summit and the Gates Foundation’s Goalkeepers 2017 event present through their convening power.

As heads of state and health and business leaders descended on New York to discuss progress around the Sustainable Development Goals last week, it was clear that going it alone was off the table. Instead, a collective and inter-connected way of working has taken hold, and not a minute too soon. It’s going to take all the systems thinking we can muster if we are to achieve the SDGs by 2030 But I truly believe it’s possible, if we can align efforts to scale impact.

In NTD circles where the END Fund operates, collaboration through Uniting to Combat NTDs has been in evidence since 2012, when 80 organizations came together to sign the London Declaration on NTDs. Business plays a vital part directly and also through multi-stakeholder partnerships between the public, private and civil society organizations sectors. Pharmaceutical companies donate millions of dollars’ worth of medicines annually relying on NGOs and others with efficient distribution capabilities on the ground to get the medicines to where they are needed. It works so well because efforts don’t overlap.

In August I hosted a workshop at TED Global to help the dream come true of a health worker for everyone, everywhere, any time“ 2017 TED Prize winner Raj Panjabi, CEO of Last Mile Health, and the many other organizations (like Financing Alliance for Health, AMP Health, Project Muso, Partners in Health, and Hope Through Health). This collective has an ambition is to recruit the largest army of community health workers (CHWs) the world has ever known. Currently, across Africa there are estimated to be about 250,000 formal community health workers who perform different, much needed frontline health services.  This is about to change with innovators among many governments, health organizations and philanthropic partners, supporting the development and expansion of national community health worker programs across Africa to drive this figure up to 1 million or more. It is estimated a trained, supervised, paid community health workforce could save 30 million lives by 2030.

Community health workers are a great example of systems-thinking in action. If we can build this frontline infrastructure, we can use it in many different ways: to combat diseases like malaria and NTDs, to tackle widespread malnutrition, improve maternal health outcomes, and save and improve lives. CHWs are also one of the best early warning systems for the next pandemic. Rather than different programs overlapping their efforts on the frontline of delivery, focusing on supporting CHWs will mean resources, time, and lives will be saved.  At the END Fund, we’ve been working to make sure every time we support a national NTD program, it is squarely rooted in strengthening local health systems and integrated with efforts to scale CHW programs in the poorest and most remote villages.

Something of this scale undoubtedly requires concerted political will and resource. Ethiopia is an inspiring example of the potential impact if we can get this right, having mobilized 40,000 health extension workers (1 health extension worker for every 500 families) to help reduce maternal mortality, as well as improve general health of communities. Gatherings like the WEF SDG Summit and the Goalkeepers 2017 event provide the opportunity to share and celebrate these learnings and inject clarity and momentum so integrated solutions can be found to achieve these shared sustainability goals.

There’s a saying in my sector, “NTDs aren’t neglected diseases, but diseases of neglected people.” There is an obvious interplay between poor health (SDG 3) and poverty (SDG 1), lack of sanitation (SDG 6), food insecurity (SDG 2), poor infrastructure, and limited education (SDG 4). Meeting any of the SDGs is about seeing the interconnections between these individual goals – understanding them from a systems lens. We need to leverage these international events to work together to find the convergence opportunities and develop holistic solutions.

Ellen Agler is the chief executive officer of the END Fund.