Wednesday, May 07, 2008

I’ve been thinking a lot about two words, governance and stewardship, recently. In part this is because, with Josep Figueras, I’ve been working on the text for the Tallinn Ministerial Conference but also because I’ve been teaching about it to our MSc students. I’m grateful to one of my PhD students and to my MSc seminar group for the examples I’m going to use in a minute.
The problem with both of these words is that everyone seems to use them differently. A quick search on Google reveals dozens of definitions of governance; stewardship, a term that came into widespread use following publication of the 2000 World Health Report, has received less attention but it is also clear, listening to it being used, that it can mean all things to all people. As always with health policy, I take comfort from Lewis Carroll’s book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, where Humpty Dumpty says “words mean what I choose them to mean”.
Yet maybe we can turn it round. We may not know what (good) governance and stewardship are but we do know when they are absent. Hence the two examples from my students. One concerns a new EU member state. As with any newly acceding country, its accession was conditional on putting in place an extensive body of modern laws. One of these laws concerned mental health. Yet although the law was passed, no resources or personnel were made available to implement it. No-one was accountable for failing to implement it. Indeed, it was very clear that it was never meant to be implemented. Simply passing it served a purpose and it could now be ignored. This is a failure of governance.
The second example is from the UK. A previous English Secretary of State for Health was confronted with a situation where, having put in place a new system of postgraduate medical training, it was clear that a flood of applicants from outside the UK would leave several thousand British doctors with no job. She issued an instruction that non-EU doctors would be ineligible to apply. The British Association of Physicians of Indian Origin sought judicial review and in a scathing
judgement the Law Lords supported them. They noted that the Secretary of State had it within her power to change the rules by bringing a motion before parliament. Clearly wanting to avoid controversy, she failed to do so, instead simply placing a notice on a web site of the NHS Employers organisation. This, Lord Bingham noted “was to suggest a degree of official formality that was notably lacking”, going on to state that “it is for others to judge whether this is a satisfactory way of publishing important government decisions with an impact on people’s lives”. This too is a failure of governance (and as I have argued before, far from exceptional in the UK in recent years).
Of course, these are not unique, and maybe we need to think about assembling a collection of such examples from across Europe. Even if we are unable to define what good governance and stewardship are, we will at least be able to know when they are missing.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Copenhagen, 30th April
To Copenhagen, for the European consultation on the forthcoming Ministerial Conference on Health Research that will be held in Bamako, Mali, this November. I’ve been engaged with this process for a while, through WHO EURO.
The conference follows on from one held in Mexico City in 2004. It will be important as it will contribute to the agenda for global health research in the next number of years. Hence, it is essential to get it right.
My concern is that we risk losing sight of the fact that it is a global conference, albeit one that is, in part, focused on Africa. I don’t want to diminish for one second the enormous need for health research in Africa and, in particular, the importance of building research capacity there, but we should not forget the needs of the rest of the world.
Last November, we organised a consultation on European priorities for Bamako at the conference of the European Public Health Association (later published in the
Eur J Public Health). We highlighted three priorities for research in Europe (on top of the ones that will be included anyway because of their global reach, such as tobacco and HIV). These were migration, aging, and alcohol, while we also flagged up the contribution that Europe could make to the rest of the world in research on complex chronic disorders, which will be the real challenge for everyone in the future, whether we are talking of diabetes or HIV or something else.
This time we were looking more widely, and the Danish Foreign Ministry had brought together what seemed to be over 100 people in their very attractive conference on the sea front in Copenhagen. I was arguing, in a panel discussion, that the health systems framework we will be using in the forthcoming Tallinn conference bears closer inspection. It highlights the beneficial reciprocal relationships between health systems, health, and wealth. Beyond that, I think we have three questions about capacity that are of concern to those of us working in Europe.
  • First, how can we get the basic data in place, by which I mean regular health examination and health interview surveys, that are comparable across all of Europe? These are being developed but we are already so far behind the USA.
  • Second, how can we establish better links between research and policy? Obviously I would say that the European Observatory is a good model but we also need to learn much more from the Canadians with their knowledge brokers.
  • Third, how can we build up research capacity in our own neighbourhood. Research capacity in many parts of the former Soviet Union or in the Middle East or North Africa is far weaker than in countries like Uganda or Tanzania.
So at Bamako I hope that Africa does get attention – it deserves it. But we should not forget the rest of the world.
April 29th
To the Royal College of Physicians for their conference on Global Health. I was asked to speak about international trade and health so I chose as my title “Opium, tobacco and alcohol: the evolving legitimacy of international action”. My argument went as follows. We all agree that, in most cases, international trade brings great benefits. Each country does things where it has a competitive advantage. I enjoy mangoes but it would be a bit silly of me to try to grow a mango tree in my garden in north London (although with global warming you never can tell). Yet there is a down side. The problems arise when what are being moved around the world are not the usual “goods” but rather “bads”. Few people really think that flying tons of AK-47s into the Democratic Republic of Congo is a good idea (except of course those doing the flying and those supplying them from places like the Trans-Dneister republic – see Misha Glenny’s new book - McMafia: Crime Without Frontiers ). Similarly, landmines are now fairly universally regarded as a “bad”. But what is it that changes a “good” into a “bad”?
I began by looking at one of the best known examples. In the middle of the 19th century British forces went to war with China (twice) to protect our right to sell opium to China. China certainly didn’t want it – it realised that it was causing harm to its population and even threatened to retaliate by banning exports of rhubarb to Britain, in the hope that this would inflict widespread constipation. Yet it was the opium harvest that lay behind the economic success of now British Bengal. Over a century later we were still at it, as Christopher Bayly describes in his excellent
book on the British withdrawal from SE Asia, as we imported massive amounts of opium to ensure that the Malayan population kept working even though there was no food. Yet now the Royal Navy patrols the high seas, interdicting cocaine smugglers in the Caribbean (and anywhere else it can find them). What turned us from a trafficker to a policeman?
The same sort of change is taking place with tobacco. Here we have a product that has killed more people than all the wars of the twentieth century yet we (or at least our political leaders) still treat the manufacturers and distributors in the same way as people who make things that actually benefit us. It really is remarkable. These people are peddling their deadly products to children all over the world in a way that is really no different to the traffickers who hand around school gates trying to hook kids on heroin. Yet while no-one would invite the drug traffickers to be photographed with our political leaders, there seems to be no barriers for tobacco company executives. In the past, when countries such as Thailand stood up to the USA and said that they didn’t want tobacco imports, the USA threatened trade sanctions. Imagine what would happen if Bolivia took the USA to the World Trade Organisation for blocking exports of cocaine (although, again, anything is possible).
Except, there are some signs of hope. The
Framework Convention on Tobacco Control does make clear that tobacco is not just another product and that governments can put in place a range of measures to counteract the aggressive marketing of tobacco without being accused of erecting non-tariff barriers. So tobacco is steadily being transformed from a bad to a good.
What of alcohol? Obviously this is more difficult as moderate consumption is clearly good for you, providing you are at risk of heart disease (if you are under 40 you are just kidding yourself – the net effect is harmful, sorry). Yet the alcohol industry seems to be doing everything possible to move into the corner with the makers of “bads”. Recently (as I described in an
editorial in the BMJ) when discussions on a European alcohol policy were taking place, the Brewers of Europe published a remarkable report purporting to show that there really was very little evidence that alcohol was at all harmful. They commissioned it from the Weinberg Group, a consulting firm that had previous tried to convince us that the health effects of smoking were exaggerated and that Agent Orange was not such a bad thing after all. Their report argued that that "there is not enough evidence to substantiate a link between alcohol advertising and consumption," raising the question of why the industry spends so much money promoting its products, and that "violence is a subjective term which is fairly nebulous and elastic," a view unlikely to be shared by someone scarred by a bottle wielded by a drunk. Clearly, if the alcohol industry continues with tactics such as this, it cannot be surprised if we begin to consider the need for concerted international action, building on the experiences with narcotics and tobacco.