by Radhika Arora (EV 2012 from India)

In October this year 50 young public health professionals from low and middle income countries in Africa, Asia and South America, with varying academic and professional experiences came together for the second Emerging Voices programme. Conceptualized by the Institute of Tropical Medicine, Antwerp as an initiative towards bringing voices from the global south into the global research arena the Emerging Voices programme was first held in 2010 along with the First Global Symposium on Health Systems Research in Montreux, Switzerland. Two years later, in 2012 the Emerging Voices programme took place once again, this time in association with the Peking University Health Sciences.

So what is it about a training programme that deserves a blog post? As one of the fifty participants to the Emerging Voices programme, I spent three weeks in a new country with some of the most incredible and inspiring people I have ever met. That deserves a blog post.

Full of excitement and nervous anticipation, bags packed for three weeks, I arrived in Beijing on a warm mid-October afternoon. Learning can take place at different levels, in different spaces and in very different ways. Three weeks in Beijing taught us that. Any doubts about how three weeks in a foreign country would pass were quickly dispelled. We hit Go! the moment we landed. Received by volunteers at the airport we were settled into our cozy quarters at the Master Inn hotel, located opposite the School of Public Health on Campus at the Peking University’s Health Sciences Center, which was to be our home for the next twenty-two days or so.

With unprecedented ways to access and disseminate information today, how do you create a learning environment for over fifty public health professionals who are at varying stages at their career? You bring them together for three weeks and watch the flow of information transfer from Africa to China to India to South America to Belgium and all the way back. Learning took place organically.  With representatives from different countries in Africa, South and South-East Asia the crux of the learning came not just from classroom sessions on language training, presentation skills, health systems research and content, but from the immense knowledge that every participant brought to the programme.

Instead of working in independent silos, the programme offered a unique collaborative learning environment, giving all of us participants the opportunity to share our experiences bringing alive not just numbers and data, but also sociocultural contexts to health and development issues facing numerous countries. Each person was given a voice loud enough to be heard all the way from Nigeria to Colombia via Beijing. Common problems were shared, ideas exchanged and collaborations initiated.  The collaborations that were forged weren’t just among the emerging voices and their mentors, but my colleagues and I also had the opportunity to interact with prominent figures in different aspects of health system research from our host organizations as well as from other organizations and field trips to see the Chinese health system in action.

Two weeks of language and presentation skills training, revisions of presentations and poster contents, countless cups of instant coffee and many dragon fruits later the voices emerged in the pre-conference. With a well trumpeted vuvuzela, the ITM team calmed frayed nervous with tai-chi and customized speed dating, helping emerging health system researchers connect with senior researchers. The information environment facilitated easy interaction between EVs, senior researchers and other participants to the pre-conference. It gave a platform to build networks, encouraging interactions during the pre and main conference.

As an Indian I have often read and heard of casual comparisons being made between India and China. As a resident o fIndia’s capital Delhi, I will suppress the urge to draw comparisons between the two countries, after spending just a few weeks in the Chinese capital. However, three weeks in Beijing was enough to make me realize just how evolved the infrastructure, systems and the cityscape in the city and suburban areas were. Despite the dust and pollution, of which Delhi has plenty as well, Beijing offered a safe, user-friendly urban space with well-constructed roads, sidewalks for pedestrian, public transport system and more importantly, a safe space for women to move around in, a welcome change for someone like me who lives in a city known to be unsafe for women, pedestrians and drivers as well.

I also had the opportunity to be part of a field visit to the community health center at Tongzhou district, approximately 19 kilometres from Beijing.  For most of our field visit group, include myself, we were surprised to find fully constructed and developed transport infrastructure and housing along the roads, instead of a rural town dotted with paddy fields, that some of us equate with a rural setting. Unlike many primary health centers in my home country, the rural-level Community Health Center had a well-made, clean physical structure, with a well-stocked pharmacy and the presence of sufficient health personnel at the center. In Beijing itself, the well planned and very clean campus and services of the Peking University’s Health Sciences Center has many lessons that schools of health in India can learn from.

So much for my own very casual comparison between the two emerging giants, back to the EVs venture.  Personally, as a recent entrant to public health research, I was thrilled at being given the opportunity to be able to participate in a training track such as the Emerging Voices. As a broadcast journalist by training with work experience as a features writer, I have always been interested in health and development issues. I believe that solutions to health and development cannot emerge from one sector only. It is only through intersectoral participation that issues of healthcare can garner the support it requires to be part of mainstream discourse as well as to develop policies and programmes that look at issues of health systems from different points of view. That said, without the requisite academic and professional experience in the subject of healthcare, it is often hard or difficult to break into the public health research for those who are interested. Opportunities to encourage such a diverse group of health systems researchers can only boost the quality and kind of health systems research that the world needs.  I believe the emerging voices programme has the potential to introduce candidates with an interest and some professional experience in health and development to health research.

Being part of a team as opposed to an independent delegate really helped us get into the thick of things at both the pre-conference and the main HSR conference. With our newly found ability to communicate across accents and cuisine, we strode across the slippery floors of theBeijingConvention Centerwith ease and confidence in our training to make our voices heard. Bright red-and-white, context-appropriate colored badges set each one apart from the other 1700 participants.

The emerging voices track is still in its early stages. With a growing alumni list and increasing interest in the programme I hope the programme attracts more participants in future, including young professionals working at the programme implementation, communications and even policy level. Encouraging media personnel – documentary filmmakers, development writers would make the programme richer and also help build a global network of communicators. Yes, you would expect me to say so, I know.

For some Emerging Voices, the journey from Antwerp to Montreux to Beijing was as winding as the road to universal health coverage, board memberships and standing ovations. A second group of young individuals dedicated to improving health systems through research gathered in Beijing for the first time. Here is hoping for a new year of noisy collaborations and information sharing through this rapidly expanding network of young health systems researchers. Time to blow the vuvuzela, I guess!

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