The new Astana Declaration says that, “We are convinced that strengthening primary health care (PHC) is the most inclusive, effective and efficient approach to enhance people’s physical and mental health, as well as social well-being, and that PHC is a cornerstone of a sustainable health system for universal health coverage (UHC) and health-related Sustainable Development Goals.” The Declaration outlined a vision, a mission, and a commitment. An opportunity to discuss how to implement this existed at the two-day conference in Astana Kazakhstan celebrating the 40th anniversary of the seminal Alma Ata Declaration.
Ironically the opportunity was not fully grasped. There were many sessions that shared country experiences ranging from finance to information technology. Youth who will carry PHC forward for the next 40 years gave their opinions and thoughts. Lip-service as well as actual case examples of community involvement were featured. What we did not hear much of was the specifics of how countries, moving forward, will actually implement the commitments spelled out in the document.
One colleague who has worked with the sponsoring agencies was of the view that since much advanced input and work from many partners and countries had gone into the new Declaration, which was already nicely printed, they were reluctant to provide the slightest chance that debate would be reopened.
As they say, fair enough (maybe), but even if one takes the Declaration as a done deal, the matter if implementation needs to be addressed. There was ample criticism that the Alma Ata Declaration was not properly implemented. This was in part because academics and development agencies jumped the gun and pushed, with focused financial backing, what would be called selective primary health care that was more agency driven, not community directed as envisioned at Alma Ata (now Almaty) in 1978.
In order not to repeat those mistakes and give full voice to the community and key constituents, at minimum the implementation strategies of the pre-agreed Declaration should have been discussed in specific terms. Sure many ideas and examples were aired, but there was no attempt to focus these into workable strategies.
But was the community even there in Astana to take part in strategizing? One community health worker from Liberia received much attention because she was the odd one out. Sure, there were plenty of NGOs, but not the real grassroots of civil society, although the youth involvement aspect of the conference approached that. Some of these NGOs and agencies had themselves been part of the selective PHC agenda.
There was plenty of talk about us involving them, especially when it came to community health workers (CHWs). CHWs should first be integrated into community systems to ensure they are accountable to communities. Then there should be an equal partnership between community systems and health systems. Otherwise CHWs get lost as just front line laborers.
Of course it is never too late. Regional gatherings may be a better forum that can discuss implementation in a more socially, economically and culturally appropriate way. Let’s hope we don’t look back in another 40 years and with the Astana Declaration had been better and more faithfully implemented.