Buzz Meeting: What Can We Learn From Other “Movements”

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As Janna Oberdorf wrote previously on the MHTF blog, much of the discussion on the first day of the MHTF Buzz Meeting surrounded the question of whether or not there is a maternal health movement. The general consensus seems to be that if there is not currently a “movement,” then one is emerging.

When thinking about how to grow and mature a maternal health movement, there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel. In fact, a report published this year, Campaigning for International Justice, by Brendan Cox, Director of Policy and Advocacy of Save the Children UK, looks at eight different movements in the international development arena and identifies lessons we should be, but aren’t necessarily learning:

The international development movement has been one of the most successful movements in the world, creating truly great campaigns and changing the daily lives of millions of people. However, in the last five years the sector has been unable to replicate the scale of previous successes. This is due in part to a change in the international context, but it is also because the sector has become increasingly bad at learning the right lessons from its past successes.

Cox identifies women’s rights, although not maternal health specifically, as an area of opportunity:

The development sector has talked about women’s rights for decades. In theory, every major development-focused NGO has mainstreamed women’s rights into its analysis, programming and campaigning. However, in reality women’s rights are too often relegated to the formulaic addition of phrases like “especially women” to otherwise gender-blind policy reports and strategies. Within NGOs, gender is often ghettoised among gender advisors, who tend to be marginal to decision-making.

The global women’s movement is also surprisingly badly organised and led. While there is exceptional work done at national levels in some contexts, the movement overall is weak and disjointed. The international networks that do exist tend to have low levels of capacity and often focus on intellectual debates around feminist themes rather than a focus on campaigning for policy change.

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the opportunity to make progress is extremely significant.

One lesson, or strategy, that the maternal health community can learn is from the AIDS movement. During the Buzz Meeting, Tim Thomas discussed the way that AIDS activists in New York protested in front of pharmaceutical companies, chaining themselves to the doors. While there isn’t such a visible “villian” in the maternal health world, there is a lack of visible action in the developed world.

According to a recent study suggests that in California, for example, the maternal mortality ratio for black mothers (46) is roughly the same as in Mexico (52) or Thailand (47). Too often, we discuss maternal health as though it is no longer an issue that needs to be discussed for the developing world. Linking with advocates for mothers from marginalized communities in developed countries may help raise the profile of the maternal health community and reap dividends in the developing world.