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Health Diplomacy: Soft Power to Battle Global Threats

March 30, 2020

By Meredith Watkins

During a public event part of the Rethinking Diplomacy Program on February 27, the Right Honorable Dr. Daniel Ogbuabor from Nigeria offered a broad overview of health diplomacy, highlighting real world success stories during global health crises, as well as provided his insights on the current COVID-19 crisis.

Dr. Daniel Ogbuabor, a well renowned physician, Duke Global Health Institute (DGHI) fellow and parliamentarian shared his views and first-hand experience with health diplomacy with the Director of the DUCIGS/Rethinking Diplomacy Program, Dr. Giovanni Zanalda, Duke faculty, students, and health practitioners as well as with experts from other institutions who joined the meeting remotely.  The event supported by the Josiah Charles Trent Memorial Foundation Endowment was organized by the Duke University Center for International and Global Studies (DUCIGS) in collaboration with the Duke Center for Policy Impact in Global Health at DGHI.

Dr. Ogbuabor defined health diplomacy as the multi-level and multi-actor negotiation processes that shape the global policy environment for health. As a Member of Parliament, Ogbuabor chaired the House Committee on Health in the Enugu State House of Assembly in Nigeria for eight years. In his experience, negotiation processes occur within a global health system that includes state actors and transnational actors, such as individuals or organizations involved in global healthcare, as well as the governing, finance, and delivery systems under which these actors operate.

He explained that while traditional diplomacy focuses on concerns such as a nation’s material interests, economy, and national security, governments should be equally as concerned with health and humanitarian interests in their negotiations and policies. Health diplomacy, he described, is a soft power, which can help to win over the hearts and minds of citizens, as well as can help to set the international health agenda.

Dr. Ogbuabor pointed to a number of recent health diplomacy success stories, including the international responses to H5N1 in 2007, H191 in 2009, and Ebola in 2014. In each of these crisis situations, the international community was able to come together and battle these shared threats, despite often having differing interests and motives.

This international collaboration was particularly successful in the response to Ebola in 2014, in which the Chinese and American CDCs worked together to provide critical training and resources in Sierra Leone. The Chinese government, which had resources and a willingness to respond, and the American government, which provided critical experience and technical expertise, cooperated to improve testing and train health care workers in the West African nation, a response that was the largest on-the-ground health intervention in either nations’ histories.

He also noted that while it is much easier to mobilize international collective action during an outbreak, it is important for governments to prioritize outbreak preparation, including financing health research and preparedness measures before there is a problem. Currently, the international health system is in what Dr. Ogbuabor and a number of his DGHI colleagues call a “cycle of panic and neglect,” in which health outbreaks are only prioritized during and immediately after one. “Each time there is a panic, at the end of the panic, everyone goes to sleep,” he said.

Towards the end of the lecture, Dr. Ogbuabor shared his insights on the current COVID-19 crisis, stressing that international information sharing, finance mobilization, and aid delivery are the key issues in fighting the virus. He also emphasized the need to protect health workers, as well as improve the capacity of international diplomats to adequately discuss and prioritize global health issues.

Dr. Ogbuabor stated that he believes the World Health Organization (WHO) is in the best position to step up as the center point for the international coronavirus response, and countries and citizens should be looking to them for real-time information and advisories. He believes that the WHO should bring all of the ministers of health across the globe to the table to formulate a cohesive international strategy and response, and also should prioritize supporting countries within their sovereign health systems.  

Overall, Dr. Ogbuabor is convinced that health diplomacy can play a critical role in addressing three major gaps in health systems: the gap in the international financing of global public goods; the “middle income gap” when middle income countries transition away from health aid towards sustainable health systems internally; and the domestic health financing gap in funding universal health coverage in low- and middle-income countries.

Watch Dr. Ogbuabor’s full talk:

Dr. Giovanni Zanalda and Dr. Dr. Daniel Ogbuabor