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January 01, 2008

Human Rights Heroes

by Wilson Adam Schooley

"The Global Health Council has confronted issues that are of critical importance to effective public health globally, in an open, dynamic way at a highly professional level of discourse. The council deserves great credit for its contribution. I offer my congratulations for its selection as Human Rights Hero."
    —U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the State and Foreign Operations subcommittee that funds U.S. foreign assistance programs

“Dr. Nils Daulaire and the Global Health Council are steadfast human rights heroes. Inside and outside of government, Dr. Daulaire has championed global commitment to basic health and nutrition. Under Nils’s leadership, the Global Health Council has developed a vision for advancing health care around the world, with priority emphasis on preventive health care measures that can reduce both human suffering and social costs. Of special note, Dr. Daulaire and the Global Health Council are advocates for the rights and interests of women and girls around the world, who too often are denied equal access to health services that can improve their lives and, by extension, the lives of their families and communities.”
    —Former U.S. Senator Timothy E. Wirth, president, United Nations Foundation and Better World Fund

The crisis in Myanmar, unfolding as this issue goes to press, confirms the critical and sometimes crippling effect of politics on international aid.

Some organizations have refused funding that comes with political strings attached. Many deserve praise. We recognize one here both because of its principled stand and because it is a member organization that includes many in the global community who have taken similar stands.

From its inception through the 1990s, the Global Health Council was principally funded by U.S. grants (primarily from the U.S. Agency for International Development [USAID] and the Centers for Disease Control [CDC]). In 1998, the council’s new leader, Nils Daulaire of USAID, felt that the council should be an independent voice. The council sought to diversify its funding and reduce dependence on the U.S. government. It did so as a matter of principle, even though at the time its policy agenda was consistent with that of the then administration. By 2003, only 20 percent of the council’s funding came from the U.S. government.

On the first day of the Bush administration, the council took public issue with the re-imposition of the Global Gag Rule, because it rendered family planning services more difficult and contradicted a fundamental principle of development—free and unfettered discussion.

The council’s annual international conference theme for 2004 was “Youth: Generation on the Edge,” which openly confronted sensitive issues of sex, violence, substance abuse, and rapid cultural change. An important policy debate concerned the PEPFAR “ABC” strategy: Abstinence, Be faithful, and Condoms.

With three million new HIV infections a year, half of them among the young, discussion of these issues was essential to global health. The council plenary debate on the “ABCs” included a proponent of abstinence strategy (from President Bush’s AIDS Advisory Council) and a proponent of a broader strategy (from the International Planned Parenthood Federation [IPPF]), as well as the executive director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA).

Both IPPF and UNFPA promote family planning (contraception), and IPPF has supported a rights-based approach to reproductive health encompassing abortion services. Both organizations were defunded by the Bush administration after receiving support during the Clinton administration. The council recognized that inviting representatives from the two organizations would be controversial, but felt they had important contributions to make to the dialogue. Immediately, conservative activists complained, and senior U.S. government officials called the council to say it should disinvite these groups. Daulaire refused. Only weeks before the conference, USAID, CDC, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services rescinded federal funding.

The council announced that it would carry on anyway. The conference opened by reaffirming the council’s commitment to free speech, open exchange, and a dialogue based on facts rather than ideology. Daulaire’s keynote speech critiqued those in federal agencies who play politics with world aid:

"It is time to say to those who would stifle debate and dialogue, and to those in power who would allow them to prevail: have you no shame? This is not a game for us as it is for those whose lives are politics. We are in the caring business—the global health business. The business of understanding disease and its determinants, and helping to lay out the responses that actually work in the field. The Global Health Council’s … members from over 100 countries … are no strangers to adversity. We would meet in a tent if we needed to. We will include all who care to engage and to help, whatever their political and religious views; there is no litmus test for membership in our mission. We will not be deterred, and we will not be gagged."

The council determined it would no longer accept any federal funding unless it came with no strings attached on the council’s policy agenda. Since 2004, the council has not accepted federal funds, which meant it had to dismiss 20 percent of its staff, curtail activities, and devote inordinate time to fund-raising.

The stand taken by the Global Health Council was principled, non-ideological, and consistent with both its core values and global health. It has become a deeply respected voice of reason and truth across the range of global health issues that engage policymakers today, as evidenced by the praise above from Senators Leahy and Wirth. The council risked its very existence to ensure that the valiant work being done worldwide in support of the most vulnerable among us will continue. That is the kind of courageous humanitarianism that makes a Human Rights Hero.

Wilson Adam Schooley

Wilson Adam Schooley is on the editorial board of Human Rights and an adjunct law professor, writer, actor, photographer, and attorney practicing with the Schooley Law Firm in La Mesa, California.