HRH Policy Advocacy Leaders in Action Interview: Jeff Meer
An interview series with HRH champions in developing countries produced by the HRH Global Resource Center. This part of the series focuses on HRH leaders in policy advocacy.
Jeff Meer is the Special Advisor for Global Health Policy and Development at the Public Health Institute. Meer works to build PHI’s practice in the global health arena and focuses on global health advocacy.
What is policy advocacy work in the human resources for health field?
In Washington, D.C., policy advocacy work related to global health tends to focus on Capitol Hill and the administration. Policy advocacy is the effort to have policymakers in these two groups understand that success in global health can only be achieved when we have adequate resources devoted to finding, training, retaining, and rewarding people who work in global health, and to the programs they run.
How do you perform policy advocacy work?
For me, it is all about the development of personal relationships with key staff on Capitol Hill and in the administration that are in a position to influence decisions. I find that I am much more successful in making my point when there is an important vote or policy being decided if I have already established a track record of providing helpful information. I try to be non-partisan about the information I provide and offer constructive opinions and advice to policymakers on a range of global health topics. I think most people trust and value that.
What is your strategy in doing policy advocacy work?
Having worked in the administration, I remember clearly what it was like to have visits from individuals who were doing exactly what I am doing now. I try to frame my comments and my remarks to staff to be as helpful as possible. From the point of view of an administration staffer, I often found myself looking for an idea that could bridge a divide. I looked for a solution that was based in fact, palatable, workable, did not require an outrageous number of resources, and could be easily explained to my boss.
Now that I do policy advocacy work, I find that it helps to make arguments that are clear and non-technical and that do not require a lot in the way of additional resources. I try to give the target staff person something that she or he can use without having to adjust it a lot. It helps to have thought out all of the possible objections that a policymaker or a policymaker’s colleague might have to a particular idea and come up with useful solutions or work-arounds that would allow a policy or this funding request to be approved.
How have you seen policy advocacy work evolve?
One of the big watersheds in global health policy advocacy was the achievements of the HIV/AIDS community in the 1990s and early 2000s. I think this movement helped all of us in the global health policy advocacy community because the HIV/AIDS crisis created a broad understanding that health is a global concern we cannot outrun. There is no such thing as a border that a disease like HIV/AIDS cannot cross. No longer can critics say global health funding and resources to build up the capacity of global health professionals are a waste of money. Lives have been saved; nation states have been stabilized; and we are all living in a more productive, healthier planet because of those investments. Unfortunately, I have also witnessed a dramatic and very sad split occur over issues related to sexual and reproductive health including family planning over the past 20 years. As someone who cares deeply about saving lives, I don’t think this stale and divisive debate really settles anything. We know what works to save lives in this area and global health policy advocates should be united on this.
Are there improvements that should be addressed as policy advocacy work continues to evolve?
One of the more important efforts my colleagues and I are working on today is creating support for the vital people who serve on the frontlines of the global health community. These are the people out there meeting with patients, doing diagnosis, offering treatment, and making referrals to higher-level clinics and hospitals. Frontline health workers have been taken for granted for a long time, but they are absolutely essential in global health. My view is that their role must be highlighted, and we have to do everything we can to support them. We also have to come to a more complete understanding of the underlying causes of illness, including the roles that poverty and illiteracy play. The way these factors play into our decisions on global health has broad implications for the way we approach illness and disease, as well as the dignity that every human being deserves. We also have to be more conscious than ever of the gender aspects of global health.
How do you see the future of policy advocacy work happening?
We have to advocate much more strongly for resources in primary care for ways to find, train, and keep professionals on the frontlines of health care, especially for prevention. If we want to improve the lives and health of the people with whom we share this planet, we need to think of ways to maximize the impact of the very first interaction people have with someone in the healthcare system. My view is that the way to do that is to support frontline health workers. In some cases, we may have only have one opportunity to intervene with certain groups of people, so by better equipping our frontline health workers with information that they need, we are going to be doing the entire community a better service.
What are ideas that you have of policy advocacy work that should be done to better support the frontline healthcare workers?
Prevention and treatment of communicable diseases will always be a vital part of global health work. However, the overwhelming cause of mortality today is from non-communicable diseases like cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and chronic lung disorders. We have to develop strategies for dealing with non-communicable diseases, and I think that is an area that has really lagged. We can do a lot with existing global health infrastructure, including PEPFAR and the President’s Malaria Initiative, and seek synergies with successful interventions that prevent and provide early diagnosis for non-communicable diseases. Global health issues like these affect more than just health; in many places they are becoming issues of national security and can seriously affect economic vitality and national development.
How do you measure your progress in policy advocacy work?
I measure my work by assessing how well I have persuaded key staff members that global health issues matter. Thanks to people like Dr. Paul Farmer, attitudes about global health have changed and more people in the international affairs community understand the centrality of global health. But we cannot stop now. I would say continuing to change people's attitudes about global health is really what this game is about.