by Lungiswa Nkonki, Mabel Carabali and Beverly Ho

In 2010, young researchers from developing countries were invited by the Institute of Tropical Medicine (ITM) in Belgium to raise their voices in the scientific debate and actively participate in the First Global Symposium on Health Systems Research in Montreux, Switzerland.

Over 300 researchers from developing countries responded to this call. We submitted single authored essays in line with the theme “health systems research: towards universal health coverage.” 52 emerging voices from 26 countries and 5 continents were selected. The ITM team created a respectful and supportive space for sharpening our viewpoints.  Thereafter we emerged in the First Global Health Systems symposium, where our young voices were crystal clear just like the stunning lake in Montreux.

Those of you, who attended the first symposium, should remember our innovative participation in the closing ceremony.  Three emerging voices had you on your feet. Our key message was that we believe in Alma Ata, we see health as a socio-economic issue and a human right. We also called on the research community to view capacity building and mentorship of young researchers as an investment and key in achieving universal health coverage.

The presence of young and innovative minds offers an opportunity to look at old problems with fresh eyes. Indeed some of our ideas were radical, for instance, Seye Abimbola from Nigeria, asked that we imagine a country without a health system. It’s hard to imagine. He asked us to consider wishing away the existing health system. Seye’s intention was to push our thinking about health system to include its ideals. Some ideas were not so radical, but simply pointed to unfinished research agendas, thus identifying areas of research that were not followed up such as, how to measure lay health worker attrition in developing countries.

Montreux is a happy memory now.  As it was planned, our expert coaches continued to support us online and occasionally face-to-face. So far 28 Emerging voices have won the battle with editors in peer-reviewed journals.  This process requires discipline. For many of us, it’s has been long and challenging, as difficult as the Chinese acrobatic performance.

80% of the Emerging Voices had published their work in different forms such as blogs, reports, and editorials.  But, as everything in life, some of us are still fighting. Driven by our motivation and the ITM continuous support, we actively participated in several international events, which gave us the opportunity to make our voices louder and heard. Earlier in 2012, we participated in the Prince Mahidol Awards Conference in Bangkok, Thailand, we were at the People’s Health Assembly in Cape Town, South Africa, and at the Global Forum for Health Research, also in Cape Town where we participated as members of the ‘Youth in Motion’ group.

In the run-up to this second symposium, the Emerging Voices 2010 also contributed to a 26-country Health Systems research mapping exercise, which is one of the WHO Health Systems Research strategy background paper. We did not only emerge as voices, emergence to us also meant career progression, skills building, research agenda setting and personal growth.  Furthermore, emergence meant being influential in our own countries and beyond, Influencing the coming generations, who will hopefully make Universal Health Coverage a reality all over the world.

Because of the success of the 2010 Emerging Voices, the program has now been integrated into the 2nd Health Systems Research Symposium.  The ITM worked closely with Peking University and the organizers of the symposium to once again create a supportive environment for the 50 Emerging Voices of 2012. Beijing turns out to be an inspiring setting for the Emerging Voices; from our fellow eight Chinese Emerging Voices, we learnt a great deal about the Chinese health care system and how undesirable as it may be, top-down governance may achieve incredibly good results as in China’s progress towards universal health coverage.

In the past two weeks, the Peking University Health Sciences Center graciously hosted the Emerging Voices’ intensive training and preparations.  From health care financing, knowledge translation, methodology in HSR and the contribution of BRIC countries to global health, we shared ideas, evidence, and viewpoints using non-traditional ways of communicating.  During the 2-day preconference, we were joined by around 100 participants from all over the world.

The “Emerging Voices” programme together with other initiatives has created opportunities for young voices to be heard. Our expectation is that the symposium will start a conversation about how to actively involve young voices in international fora like this and in our own countries. We acknowledge that the systems for implementing this maybe non-existent in many countries. Perhaps, a place like this is where to start.

We are grateful to the pillars of this field who have generously provided platforms for our voices to be heard.  We have been, and will continue to pay forward this generosity and kindness. The Emerging Voices represent a new breed of young, enthusiastic, and highly motivated researchers and practitioners.  We do what we do because we believe that we can improve nations’ health outcomes and reduce inequity…far less than 200 years!

Like food in China, Emerging Voices come in all shapes, sizes and colors; mysterious, interesting and always leave you wanting for more.  The Emerging Voices are the “Great Wall” of this symposium – so don’t leave the conference without meeting some of us. In the next few days, we invite you to take part in the sessions organized by the Emerging Voices.  Together, let us make young voices heard, loud and clear.

Video of this presentation from the opening ceremony of the Global Symposium:

  • Lungiswa Nkonki is a specialist scientist, Medical Research Council, and a senior lecturer at Stellenbosch University, Cape Town, South Africa.
  • Mabel Carabali is an international consultant, Dengue Vaccines Initiative in Columbia.
  • Beverly Ho is an executive assistant, Philippine Health Insurance Corporation, Manila, Philippines.

The authors are part of the ‘Emerging Voices for Global Health’ programme of the Institute of Tropical Medicine, Antwerp, Belgium. Run concurrently and in collaboration with the Global Symposium on Health Systems Research, the programme provides training, mentoring and networking opportunities for promising young health researchers and professionals from low and middle income countries.

A shorter version of this blogpost was originally posted on the BMJ blog.

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