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How protecting health can foster peace

A WHO mobile clinic in northern Iraq provides equitable health services for communities. (Credit: WHO)

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization's (WHO) director general once said, “there cannot be health without peace, and there cannot be peace without health”.

This is the ethos of the WHO's global health for peace initiative (GHPI), which is set to be discussed at the upcoming WHO executive board meeting in Geneva later this month.

Launched in 2019, the intiative seeks to make peacebuilding a cornerstone of WHO's work by looking at innovative ways to address conflict and prevent violence through health.

Experts involved in the GHPI say talks at the executive board meeting could pave the way towards a potential resolution on the health and peace initiative at the World Health Assembly in May, which could see peacebuilding ingrained in all WHO's operations in conflict settings.

Why it matters

Conflicts are a major obstacle to health, from depriving people of access to basic health services to causing injury or the spread of disease. On the other side, lack of access to health and basic social services can also foster division and exclusion, which can drive conflict and violence.

But when healthcare is delivered and upheld, both before and after conflict, it not only saves lives but can foster peace.

Conflict has long dominated WHO's emergency response. Approximately 80 per cent of the organisation's humanitarian caseload is in conflict settings as well as 70 per cent of disease outbreaks WHO responds to. But since its launch, the initiative has been looking at how the WHO can move beyond delivering health during conflict to using health interventions to help build peace.

“The vision is to position WHO and the health sector in general as a contributor to peace by making interventions in conflict and delivering peace dividends,” said Dr Rudi Coninx, head of the WHO's emergencies unit that leads the GHPI, speaking to Geneva Solutions.

“We work a lot in conflict areas, and we came to the realisation that there's actually a lot that health can do,” he added. “We started thinking about how we can make health work in conflict and actually make a positive contribution to the peace process. So, in addition to having health outcomes, how can we also have peace outcomes through health programmes? ”

Health and social cohesion

Over the past few years, the GHPI has worked with countries around the world to launch a range of health projects that meet the needs of their populations, both during and in the wake of conflict.

In Sri Lanka, Somalia and Burkina Faso, WHO country offices have worked with other UN organisations as well as health professionals and local actors to provide psychosocial support training for displaced populations and young people traumatised by conflict and violence.

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A mobile medical team made up of WHO, UNICEF and Merlin personnel discuss healthcare issues with community members in Afghanistan. (Credit: WHO)
“The initiative focuses on peace as sociopolitical cohesion rather than peace at the political level,” explained Mathilde Boddaert from the GHPI. “We're not talking about just negative peace – the absence of war – but of positive peace, which includes inclusive, equitable access to health as part of other inclusive and equitable access to other social services.”

“Health is often seen as a common good by everyone. Everyone wants access to health for themselves in their constituency,” she added. “So it helps bring people together.”

Health projects in Ukraine ranging from mental health support to vaccination drives and inclusive discussions on health reforms have helped facilitate dialogue across conflict lines, helping to promote health as a public good.

“The provision of equitable services to all parties to the conflict is an example of an activity that is actually a capacitor for peace, because people feel being excluded is a trigger for conflict in many cases,” said Coninx.

“In conflict areas, if you ask people what they need, health is always in the top three,” he continued. “So I think it's only logical that health is being addressed in conflict areas because this is really one of the most important concerns of the people that we claim to help.”

The GHPI also seeks to use health to actively combat conflict and violence, particularly in youth.

A project launched late last year in the far north region of Cameroon, where Boko Haram is most prominent, hopes to rebuild trust and prevent violence in communities by providing better and more equitable access to health and social services.

Moreover, by employing young people in projects such as building and rehabilitating local health facilities, the project aims to both keep youth away from armed groups and reintegrate those who have left.

“One of the causes of youth enrollment in armed groups such as Boko Haram is youth’s lack of recognition in society, for example, lack of access to livelihoods,” said Boddaert.

“So, we're working towards reintegrating youth who can be typically the targets of enrollment by providing them with training and short-term socioeconomic opportunities that then helps them reinsert into the social-economic network at a local level.”

A resolution on peace and health?

The GHPI faces a milestone later this month when it will be discussed at a WHO executive board meeting from 24-29 January. If accepted, the initiative could eventually lead to a resolution at the World Health Assembly (WHA) later this year, which would place peacebuilding at the heart of the WHO’s work in conflict areas.

“We really would like to see peace in all projects in the coming years,” said Boddaert.

“In fragile contexts, the minimum WHO has to do is to work in a conflict-sensitive manner. But we're more ambitious than that. We need to contribute to peace because we’re part of the UN family, and all of us need to pursue peace outcomes to prevent and solve conflict. WHO has a role to play and it has a seat at the peacebuilding table.”