KristofDecosterIt’s nearly summer, and the global health community – or at least the health systems research part of it – eagerly awaits the third Global health systems research symposium in Cape Town, pretty much like the whole world now counts the few remaining days till the World Cup football in Brazil kicks off. There are no riots or strikes in the streets of Cape Town yet, nor gorgeous local women showing off their curves and other fancy but NCD-incorrect attributes, but who knows, when the symposium gets closer?

Emerging Voices, other young researchers and old dinosaurs are already eagerly checking info on satellite sessions, plenary speakers, trying to book plane tickets and accommodation with 24 hour wifi, or reading up on  the gossip. But if we had to pick our favorite people to watch in Cape Town, who would they be? Who might shine on the global health scene, once again, or for the very first time? (We hope you forgive us for being a bit biased in this blog post – as Belgians we’re very  proud of our own team, now that we finally have a decent team). Who would be in our favorite line-up?

For a start, there’s the inevitable Julio Frenk, obviously. The Frank Lampard of the global health game. Reliable, solid, great PR too. Frankly Frenk, in a word.

Then there’s Tim Evans (now at the World Bank), equally solid and a warrior of many global health organizations and battles. He could’ve been German, in football terms. Like Julio, definitely part of the global health Mannschaft of the last decades. Not sure whether this will be his last performance on the global stage, but the affable Tim is always one to watch, and even more so if you want to know what’s going to happen post-2015. Anders Nordström is another option for the latter, although he tends to tweet in a rather incomprehensible Scandinavian language. Maybe he should ask his compatriot, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, how to use Twitter in this era. Come to think of it, a ponytail is also a good idea for Anders and other global health diplomats – we lack ponytails on the global health scene (at least among the men). These days, disruptive entrepreneurs all have ponytails, so we shouldn’t lag behind, if only for funding purposes.

In Cape Town, we’ll definitely also be watching the gifted Bruno Marchal, our very own ‘new kid on the block’ here at ITM, when it comes to HSR methodology – a man as brilliant as Kabir Sheikh and Devi Sridhar, or from the older generation, Peter Hill. The latter can be a bit too smart and enigmatic for his own team mates, though, like Zinédine Zidane in his heyday. Peter now watches the new generation from the corridors, but his influence is still considerable, for example on several of the Emerging Voices. We consider Peter as one of us by now – at ITM we like to naturalize foreigners if they can boost our own game.  Even Aussies.

Then there’s Lucy Gilson – compact, but far too quick for her (often desperate) opponents – Leo Messi comes to our mind. Leo still has to shine on the World Cup stage, unlike Lucy. But no doubt the little Argentinian will make up for that this time, he’s been saving energy for the entire season. Unlike him, Lucy might be a bit tired, after the vast preparations needed for the symposium. But her energy is incomparable, we all know, so she’ll be ready, no doubt about it.

The same can’t be said about Christiano Ronaldo, Messi’s illustrious (and notoriously vain) Portuguese opponent – CR7 is still struggling with a minor (?) injury. Anybody who watched him reveal his  bare (muscular) chest after he had made the fourth (!) goal in the Champions League final will struggle to come up with an equally confident /cocky  global health equivalent. If we had to think of one name, it would be the peerless Martin McKee, not because Martin is arrogant but because he has – like Ronaldo – incredible stats. And this in spite of the fact that he can be a bit hard to understand at times, which makes it even more of an achievement. One negative point: Martin might occasionally try to bite off your ear, like Luis Suarez on a bad day.  Anyway, if there were global health underwear, Martin would be on it. Or Lincoln Chen, if we target the big Chinese market.

An equally gifted but perhaps somewhat overenthusiastic  player is Gorik Ooms. Will he become the Neymar of this symposium, dazzling audiences with rhetorical dribbles, very much in sync with the times that are ahead of us, not past us? Somebody who understands that the social struggle on the planet and global health inequities need new responses? Or will he face the catenaccio of opposite, more defensive, teams? In any case, Gorik will need a solid squad to make a difference post-2015, and would do well to team up with people like Rob Yates, always a bit of a Balotelli type (but without the muscles and the trophy wife, we assume), be it on user fees or UHC. Maybe Gorik & Rob could also team up with a few world class global health defenders and defensive midfielders with fearsome tattoos, to impress their opponents? Say the global health equivalents of thugs like Javier Mascherano or Sergio Ramos, who think ‘over my dead body’.  The People’s Health Movement might have a number of unfazed (and underpaid) volunteers for a truly world class global health team, either young daredevils (like Natalie Eggermont) or greying ones who have seen it all (like David Legge or David Sanders), but always like a good fight.

Then you have the many strategists in global health, on the midfield – the Pirlo’s and Xavi’s of global health – for some reason there’s more of them in health systems research than in football, so we have quite some choice there. A sharp intellect, vista, an extraordinary ability to anticipate other players’ likely moves, … these global health players have it all. In my own institution, for example, both my boss (Wim Van Damme) and one of my best colleagues (Bruno Meessen) have exceptional skills in this regard, outwitting adversaries on a regular basis, raising their game when they need to. Bruno is a disruptive innovator, excellent in running between the lines and seeing opportunities where others do not – a global health Iniesta, yes. Wim even moved strategically to Cape Town, part-time, to better prepare for this ‘game of the year’ in Cape Town. When they leave the game, one day, they will no doubt become well paid coaches, like The Special One or Carlo Ancellotti, at the World Bank or Global Fund.  But for now they still play in the HSR Champions League.

As usual, Richard “my religion is global health” Horton is expected on many panels, using an upper class prose we all envy. Well-connected, witty, flawless intonation …  Wayne Rooney in another universe.  One downside: when Horton is on fire, the word ‘manifesto’ is never far away. But if somebody has to defend the global health cause, he’s the best. So Richard will be our goalkeeper, our Casillas, protecting health systems research, maternal and child health, as well as the planet.

There will be many other famous global health players to watch in Cape Town, too many to sum them all up here. Some, like Valéry Ridde, even have a football background (as well as somewhat funny English), others – like Viroy T…, impossible names, and still others have both impossible names ànd funny English (Suwit W…). We already feel sorry for the commentators in Brazil who will have to pronounce the names of players from Nigeria, Japan & South-Korea – thankfully, Indonesia didn’t make it to the tournament. But these countries always hold surprises and exceptional talent – watch Seye Abimbola from Nigeria for example, by now no longer a young and promising global health player but one expected to make a blast in Cape Town, or Walter Flores, from Guatemala. You don’t wanna mess with Walter!

We also hope for the odd Russian surprise, like in Beijing, and no doubt Americans (Judith Rodin, … ) and Dutch will think once again they can win the tournament, for all the wrong reasons ( or argue they sort of invented the idea of Chinese barefoot doctors, while the Chinese minister of Health is listening).  The surprise of the tournament might be Agnes Binagwaho, though, one of the rising stars of the global health universe, even if she’s already been with us for a while. This could be the first time that Africa takes the HSR Cup. Go Agnes, go !

We can’t wait for the symposium to start. And yes, being Belgians, we hope the global health equivalents of Hazard, Courtois & Kompany will outshine the rest!

And with this, I duly apologize for not being able to name even one well known female football player. Can’t even name the good looking ones, poor me. Luckily, in global health, that is not the case.



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One Response to Looking forward to the Neymar, Hazard and Messi of health systems research in Cape Town

  1. Peter Vermeiren says:

    Thank you for posting my first reaction (the picture) on your blog. 🙂
    But I’m still struggling with your comparison of Health Policy experts with grossly overpaid, commercialised football “stars”. Do you mean the HP experts are also overpaid or was it a hint to suggest a pay raise? 😉

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