Reflections from day 3 of IFMSA’s Pre World Health Assembly 2014

“Be enthusiastic, positive, and offer solutions”

This message from Maria Neira, Director of Public Health and the Environment Department from the WHO, sticks with me. It’s the end of the Youth pre-World Health Assembly in sunny Switzerland. I’m here as part of the IFMSA’s delegation to the 67th World Health Assembly, taking place at the Palais des Nations, Geneva, next week.

Here’s some background on the event. Every year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) gathers its member states, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), civil society groups and other affiliated parties at the World Health Assembly (WHA). The WHA is the highest decision making body of the WHO. Here, member states gather annually to discuss key global health issues.


So what are we, a group of 30 students from various backgrounds, doing here in Geneva? The IFMSA is a recognised NGO of the WHO and is therefore invited to attend the WHA each year. So in essence, we are the IFMSA’s youth delegation to the WHA. The delegation’s work this week has included planning a full advocacy strategy, contacting member states and NGOs, writing interventions to be read out next week, writing policy briefs and even role play practice for negotiating with world health leaders. During these activities I have cherished the lessons learnt from my peers.

The WHA is a great opportunity for young, motivated students, passionate about global health equity, to influence decision makers. It sounds like us students, let loose into the halls of the palace of nations, have a lot of power to change. After all, the title of our pre-WHA is “Youth: new voices in leadership, global health, policy and diplomacy”. But do we really have the power? Do people listen to us? Why should they listen to us?

I’m a keen advocate for meaningful youth participation and I strongly believe it is time people stopped considering young people as part of the problem, and started nurturing our potential. I take pride in being part the IFMSA, where it’s recognised that young people are the solution. However, having heard from some experts in the field of global health diplomacy, including staff from the WHO, UNAIDS and the Geneva Graduate Institute, my confidence in the success of youth voices has been questioned.

So, what power do we have? Does sending a bunch of student advocates to the WHO actually influence policy and decision-making?

Here are the challenges. Firstly, let’s face it – we’re pushing for issues that WE believe need to change. It can be even tougher convincing a health leader to speak up for issues, which have little evidence available. Secondly, it seems that some leaders, who’ve been in ‘the game’ for a long time, are far from welcoming the idea of youth bringing fresh, innovative ideas for health policy and development. Apparently they can blank you and walk away.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. It seems diplomacy is changing. The days of traditional Westphalian diplomacy, where two states make decisions exclusively behind closed doors, are almost gone. Diplomacy no longer occurs in large important committee rooms. Megadiplomacy is fresh. It’s about power, networking and interests. These exciting changes are opportunities young people can seize to become more powerful when negotiating with the ‘older people’. We’re young, innovative and offer naïvity, which can be good!

Youth have an important part to play, as we will inherit the global health care system and shape the world’s health tomorrow. Although it may seem like a constant battle, it’s important to keep going and try to get our voices heard. Let’s be unrealistic, visionary and naïve. Then they’ll have to listen.


Abi Deivanayagam

Delegate at Youth pre-WHA

Incoming Medsin-UK Director of International Affairs


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