08 November 2018

The WHA resolution on the global internship programme: 6 months on

On the 24th May, WHO’s member states unanimously adopted their first resolution on the global internship programme. It commits WHO to improving the recruitment and training experience; mandates that by 2020 WHO provide financial and travel assistance to young talented health professionals from across the world; and sets the target that by 2022, at least 50% of the 1000 future health leaders on the programme each year will come from least-developed and middle-income states.

The resolution was the culmination of six years engagement and advocacy within the global health community. A group of member states committed to championing this issue coalesced in the latter half of 2017. This, together with the election of a new Director-General committed to reform, provided the space for a sharp change in policy since the internship programme’s founding in 1966. Based at The Global Health Centre in the summer of this year, I had the opportunity to work closely with this group of states as they championed the issue and negotiated the resolution.

A key challenge during this period was to frame the narrative that underpinned reform. It was about fair opportunity, effective training, equitable access and long term health workforce strengthening, rather than simply another initiative to ‘pay interns’. The resolution deals with each of these issues comprehensively. Once this became clear, member states were far more amenable to supporting the resolution. In particular, the entire African and South-East Asian regions put their diplomatic weight behind it.

An interim report recently circulated by WHO highlighted the challenge it faces in changing the culture of intern recruitment across the organization. If departments and staff continue to recruit people they know, through pre-existing channels and affiliations – no amount of funding will address the inequity in member state participation. In this regard, the resolution is crystal clear “….a transparent, merit-based intern recruitment process that promotes the widest possible geographical participation and gender equity, through objective review of all intern applicants who meet the criteria”.

EB 144 and the 72nd WHA give WHO a chance to detail how reform of the recruitment process will meet these conditions. If their changes satisfy member states and donors, it will be for WHO’s leadership to ensure they are implemented effectively. I’m confident this will occur, both at WHO HQ and across regional and country offices where up to 50% of interns are based. While WHO have until 2020 to start providing funding for travel and living expenses, the sooner this begins the better chance there is of achieving the 2022 target on greater geographical diversity. Measuring progress made towards these targets will be simple. Statistics for member state participation on the programme are collected centrally by WHO and published freely online in the annual WHA human resources report.

In closing, I was privileged to have worked this summer with many dedicated people in global health and diplomacy committed to bringing about this change and I appreciate the support provided by the Global Health Centre at the Graduate Institute to facilitate my efforts while in Geneva.

Written by:
Dr. Ashton Barnett-Vanes MBBS PhD
NHS Doctor, Scotland, UK
Visiting Fellow, The Graduate Institute, Geneva