How Science Diplomacy Can Make a Difference in Global Health

Before the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control was adopted in 2003, the World Health Organization had worked for many years to prevent damage caused by tobacco consumption with the goal of passing an international agreement on tobacco regulation. The agreement, however, was not moving forward.

“The real breakthrough came as scientific evidence emerged showing the negative consequences of passive smoking and its impact on children,” Ilona Kickbusch, the founding director of the Global Health Centre at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, tells host Garry Aslanyan in the new episode of the “Global Health Matters” podcast. “These data and this evidence really made a significant difference in getting the negotiations started.”

Thanks to this development, the convention was eventually adopted, becoming the first international treaty negotiated under the auspices of WHO. Today, the agreement includes 182 parties, covering over 90% of the world population.

According to Kickbusch, the convention embodies an important example of how science and diplomacy can complement each other in achieving a goal or in driving a change. The expert discusses the role of science diplomacy in global health with Aslanyan and Aída Mencía Ripley, the Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation at Universidad Iberoamericana in the Dominican Republic.

Ripley shares how in the Dominican Republic science diplomacy was key to overcoming the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We were able to use science diplomacy to build some bridges and provide some of the early data on COVID sequencing for our country,” she recalls. “We were actually one of the first countries in the region that was able to do this, thanks to some of these international collaborations.”

Kickbusch also notes that the pandemic clearly showed how many global health issues are also subject to ideology, making hard evidence crucial.

“Being able to come together and create a global consensus also means we have to overcome ideology and we need to have really, really good data,” she says. “We can see that over the years, particularly in issues related to sexual health in the widest sense of the word, many of the international agreements, such as those guaranteeing access to medicines for stigmatized groups, were only possible because we had the hard science.”

Another important element for building consensus is promoting trust in governments and institutions, the two experts say.

“We are in a situation where trust in science and in policy-making is not as strong as it was ten or twenty years ago,” Kickbusch says. “We really need to work on that trust. We need to work on health literacy. We need to work on science literacy, both of the general population and of policy-makers and diplomats.”

Ripley highlights that in order to tackle health issues at the global level, it is essential to consider not only the hard science but also each society’s context.

“Global health is completely over-medicalized at this point,” she points out. “I think that some of the nuances that social and behavioral sciences bring to the table are crucial because we need to be able to understand people’s socioeconomic and political contexts in order to make sure that we meet people halfway, especially when we ask them to make major changes to their way of life, such as we did during the pandemic.”

Listen to previous episodes of Global Health Matters on Health Policy Watch.

Image Credits: TDR.

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