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Tales from a desert city: the Global NCD Alliance Forum 2017

The best conferences are those in which the formal content is only a part of its success – and the Global NCD Alliance Forum* – held 9–11 December in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates –has been one such. So if you want a description of what was said, I wrote a daily report as part of my role as Forum rapporteur (day 1 here, day 2 here, and day 3 here). But this blog is about some of the less tangible aspects that will really stay with me – the brightest sparks of light in a consistently bright sky.

Stories, not data

The Forum was far from a dry, Gradgrind-esque event. Yes, the top-line evidence was presented, but one of the most striking aspects of the three days – and which changed its whole feel – was delivery on the promise to actively involve young people (whose generation is set, at current rate, to be hugely affected by this epidemic) and people living with NCDs. If we don’t listen to and follow through on the needs of people living with the conditions, how can we possibly make progress? Several of the speakers shared personal experiences, which can be, as Dr Tom Frieden noted, ‘unanswerable’: stories are every bit as powerful as statistics.

Also impressive was the diversity of delegates – 350 of us, from 68 countries (and with excellent gender and regional balance of speakers and on panels). The Forum was very good for my geography, as we all chatted about how long it took us to fly there, and how jetlagged (or not) we were! One of the ‘interactive’ elements was a wall covered by a map of the world, on which we were encouraged to stick stickers indicating our personal commitments to take action. You can see the range of countries represented from the dots on the photo (a little wonky, as I had to use panoramic setting!), and this wasn't even half-way through the three days. My personal commitment is to make more of a concerted effort to link the NCD world with human rights.

The other interactive wall was a ‘chalkboard’ – brightly coloured pens, rather than chalk – on which delegates wrote hopes for the future. Inevitably, I drew a bicycle – of which I am rather proud. Such fun, and highly effective – bravo to whoever came up with the idea!

The opportunity of 2018...

The buzz of the Forum was also due to its real sense of urgency, as we discussed the High-level Meeting on NCDs (HLM) that is coming up at the United Nations next year. What does the NCD civil-society community really want to see from the HLM? And what are our main advocacy objectives, both globally and nationally? It would be deeply frustrating if the HLM came and went without governments’ recognition of and commitment to national action on this global crisis– so let’s get the word out about what we want, and encourage our heads of state/government to attend.

Walking the walk

As it was a conference about making it easier to be healthy, we were encouraged at various points to get up and stretch – and the translators, who had to sit for hours in their soundproofed box, were among the most enthusiastic in the room… see photo!

And speaking of physical activity, pretty much the only disappointment of the Forum – albeit an inevitable one, in this most car-orientated (and, in summer, unbearably hot) part of the world – was that although our hotel was only 400m or so from the conference centre, it was separated from by an enormous, busy highway. Impossible to reach on foot, it took several minutes to drive!

Making links: workplace health, and human rights

From a personal perspective, I was particularly pleased to have a speaking slot in one of the parallel sessions. Over the last few months (and I’ll blog another day on this), I’ve been lead author on new practical guidance and a call to action on NCDs and workplace health in low- and middle-income countries.** My presentation was the launch of the report – and I used the opportunity to put out a plea for the guide to be put to practical use. I would love to hear from anyone who takes it forward, especially national NCD alliances, as they could play a critical role in helping healthy workplaces to thrive.

With my human-rights hat on, it was great timing that Human Rights Day coincided with the second day of the Forum (10 December) – and many of the speakers made the case that NCDs are an equity and social justice issue, as they particularly affect the poorest and most vulnerable communities. (If you’re interested in the connections between human rights and NCDs, and why we will be missing a trick if we don’t tackle them together, I wrote a blog about it earlier this year – and I would love to work more on this!)

Making it happen

The Forum wouldn’t be possible without the generosity of its patron, the Wife of the Ruler of Sharjah – and we were particularly fortunate that Her Highness Sheikha Jawaher Bint Mohammed Al Qasimi said a few words to delegates on the last day. She, like many of the First Ladies from the region, takes a particular interest in health issues – and she is the founder and royal patron of Friends of Cancer Patients, co-hosts of the Forum. The food (including some extraordinarily hairy fruit, which turned out to be the best lychee I’ve eaten) was wonderful, and the evening events – particularly a memorable dinner in the desert, complete with camel rides for those brave enough – were impeccably delivered.

And some heartfelt thanks. To the youth delegates who took such good notes of the parallel sessions (I may be adept at rapporteuring, but I definitely can’t be in five places at once!). To Sir Trevor Hassell of the Healthy Caribbean Coalition for the invitation to speak on workplace health. And, in particular, to the NCD Alliance – ‘Katie Dain and her indefatigable team’, as Sir George Alleyne of the PanAmerican Health Organization described them – both for involving me, and for their astonishingly hard work and unfailing cheerfulness over a very busy, very long three days.

A last word

And the final word goes to Sir George Alleyne, one of wisest and loveliest people I have met in the NCD world. He began his summing-up of the three days by saying that it was impossible to sum up – and promptly proceeded, with inimitable style and grace, to give a perfect précis of the Forum – its vibe, commitment, enthusiasm, and the absolute imperative of taking momentum forward to the 2018 HLM and beyond:

‘I would like you to leave here indignant. I would like you to leave here incensed. I would like you to leave here with the sense of moral outrage that I feel – as Bob Marley says: too many have to suffer; too many have to die. We have to make a difference, we can make a difference – and we can transmit this to those who can make our optimism a reality.’

* NCDs are ‘non-communicable diseases’ – with the four major NCDs set out by the World Health Organization as being cardiovascular disease (heart disease and stroke), cancers, diabetes and chronic lung disease. This Forum, however, extended discussion to include conditions that have co-morbidities with those four diseases – including mental health, psoriasis and osteoporosis.

** This was commissioned by the NCD Alliance and Novartis Foundation, as part of their partnership on workplace health, and I worked with my previous organisation, C3 Collaborating for Health, on the research – thank you to all of you!

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