Digital marketing, humanitarian crises, obesity… My year in freelancing

My New Year’s Resolution is to do more writing for myself, rather than just for other people – you may have noticed that I failed dismally on this front in 2018, with the grand total of just one blog (albeit plus a fortnight's worth of description of a bike trip across Spain). This first effort of 2019 is to bring myself, and you, up to date with what I’ve been up to in the world of health promotion over the past year, which has whizzed by disconcertingly rapidly.

One of the things I’d most hoped for from the freelance life was that I'd get the opportunity to bring myself to speed on interesting topics that are new to me – and 2018 delivered on this with two big projects.

First up: the Danish Red Cross brought me in as a consultant to research and write a background paper on NCDs in humanitarian settings, ahead of a ‘Bootcamp’ meeting of young people and experts in Copenhagen in June, which I also then wrote up. My professional background is primarily in the prevention of NCDs, whereas it is treatment that is often seen as the really pressing issue in humanitarian settings – and I was delighted when many of the participants in the Bootcamp were vocal in their desire to see better nutrition and other risk factors dealt with during long-term crises. The icing on the cake for me was when humanitarian settings became one of very few issues actually *added in* to the final version of the Political Declaration of the UN High-level Meeting on NCDs in September - at that stage, things are often negotiated *out*.

The second new area, thanks to the World Health Organization Europe, is the complex world of digital marketing of unhealthy products to children – something that I hadn't previously hadn't delved into in any detail. WHO Europe held a meeting in Moscow on this in June, bringing together public-health people with others from the more techy side – and I was there as rapporteur. What began as a straightforward request for a meeting description has become something so much more interesting, involving plenty of research and brainpower. Watch this space for the publication soon!

Here at home, I’ve spent the past 11 months acting as coordinator of a newly established UK Working Group on NCDs – 20-odd NGOs that are looking into how NCDs can be better linked with development issues (oh, if only our International Development Secretary, Penny Mordaunt, would be more active in making this connection – she used to work at Diabetes UK!). I wrote a background paper and rapporteured a parliamentary briefing that we held in Portcullis House in May, helped to organise and took minutes at numerous meetings, and generally helped think through strategy and planning. It’s been a great way to find out more about what the UK is doing (and not doing) in NCDs, and I’m looking forward to seeing what we achieve this year.

For the last three months of the year, I unexpectedly found myself with a salaried job: six months of three days a week at World Cancer Research Fund International (as one of my friends put it: ‘Because you weren’t busy enough already?!’). I’m writing the ‘Methods Document’ (i.e. setting out the process) for a scan of national-level physical activity and nutrition policies, which is a discrete piece of work that falls under a huge EC Horizon 2020 project on child obesity (CO-CREATE). Drafting it is a delicate balance of aspiration and practicality, and it appeals enormously to my geeky/pedantic side!

The third 'World' organisation with which I’m working is the World Obesity Federation. Again, some writing, some thinking, some strategy – and the opportunity to work alongside the WHO Civil Society Working Group ahead of the aforementioned UN High-Level Meeting on NCDs, although a French air-traffic control strike scuppered my efforts to meet in person in Geneva.

And then there is the work that doesn't appear on any invoices, but which is essential: conferences, coffees with interesting people, reading … and time spent on Twitter, which may sound like a frippery, but I struggle to think how I could do the job without it. It keeps me ahead of the game, providing me with a constant stream of fascinating information from some great people, and I’ve now got about 900 followers, which is an alarming thought. On occasion, I have been at home watching an event on my laptop, and have received a coffee invitation from a colleague who hasn't realised that I’m live-tweeting from 1000s of miles away!

But having said that, it’s always more fun to be at meetings in person – and the year ended well on that front, with another flying visit to Moscow to rapporteur a gathering of WHO Europe's Collaborating Centres on NCD risk factors: a great way to be a fly on the wall of a really interesting process, and to get photos of Red Square in the snow.

Freelancing can be a lonely existence, so they tell me – but it’s not proved to be that way for me! For this, I have stellar colleagues to thank, particularly: the co-chairs of the UK Working Group (Jess Beagley (NCD Alliance), Laura Hucks, (Cancer Research UK) and, latterly, Liam Sollis (Plan UK)); Louise Meincke and colleagues at WCRF International; Johanna Ralston and the team at World Obesity; everyone I worked with on the Danish Red Cross project, especially Jack Fisher (then at NCDFREE); and Kremlin Wickramasinghe at WHO Europe.

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