August 31st 2010

Ai at the Global Maternal Health Conference

The gardeners are squatting low in the heat, planting and greening the pavements and sidewalks of Delhi. They are under pressure to complete, because the Commonwealth Games are imminent. Lots of talk in the papers about delays and corruption, coupled with suppressed glee at the pickle Pakistan cricketers now find themselves in. The talk in Delhi is that the Monsoon has been heavier, and more prolonged than usual, but we are enjoying the dry steamy atmosphere at the Habitat Centre, where the Global Maternal Health Conference is in full swing.

And maternal health is in the news too. On the day we arrived, on a side street just off Connaught Place – populated by foreigners rich enough to afford the prices at Delhi’s Five Star hotels – a woman (described as a ‘destitute’) died having given birth a few days before in the street. Thousands walked by, according to the Hindustan Times. Taking little notice. Her story was highlighted by one of today’s presenters, who asked: ‘will she be counted?’ The bigger question for me is why does she – and her baby – not count?

Jeremy Smith and I are in the company of eminent public health experts and delegates with a distinguished record in maternal health advocacy and accountability. We spend the day dashing from one seminar to another – privileged to learn from them all.

We were even more privileged to meet with, and learn directly from the then Indian Minister of Health, the Hon. Mr Prasanna Kumar Hota (in an informal conversation one evening) about some of the revolutionary changes taking place within the national health system. Under his leadership (he is now retired, but was one of the longest serving health ministers) the Indian government introduced aconditional cash transfer system – cash transfers that go direct to women. These have led to a rapid increase in the number of women giving birth in medical facilities. The numbers have risen from 20% in 2005 to 50% in 2008 in one state. But in my conversation with the Hon. Mr Hota, I heard more about the government’s community based system for monitoring the delivery of health services to villages and larger communities – encouraging villagers to take ownership of their local health facilities. It may be too soon to judge its effectiveness and legitimacy, but it’s a wonderfully bold government initiative.

We have come to Delhi to meet with colleagues that are part of a DFID-funded consortium committed to translating evidence into action for ensuring maternal and newborn survival in Africa, where maternal mortality rates are highest. I am excited to be working with Africans again. Africa is, after all, the land of my birth.

So – watch this space.

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