Last weekend over 100 GlobeMed students from 14 colleges in the Northeast gathered at the HillTop Conference at Columbia University to engage in discussion and reflection about GlobeMed, and specifically its model of partnership as a philosophical framework and a mechanism for tangible action. Five of us from Amherst had the pleasure of attending this conference, and the pleasure of meeting many inspirational people – from other GlobeMed students to leaders of global health organizations to GlobeMed alumni continuing the fight towards social justice.
As I attended discussion groups, speakers, and panels, and as I casually talked to other GlobeMed members, the theme of humility stood out to me. GlobeMed – its model of partnership, the people, the energy, the inspiration, the knowledge, the commitment to constantly improve – is trulygreat. Hearing about other chapters’ projects and partner organizations all over the world made me realize the extent of GlobeMed’s global impact. Being in a room surrounded by so many passionate, capable students made me realize that this student-led organization is not only an organization; it is a movement. However, it also made me realize the importance of humility. We can recognize that GlobeMed is great, but we must also accept and welcome other paths and other models that are working to reach the same goals as us.
This realization led me to think about sustainability, a term that we often hear in global health discourse. When critiquing NGOs, the criteria of sustainability is often examined. We often judge an organization’s success by its level of sustainability. Yet, what does this important term even mean? Its most basic definition is to be able to be maintained, but this definition can be interpreted in many ways.
Thinking about GlobeMed, I do believe that GlobeMed’s model is sustainable. Through our partnerships, we work to empower community health organizations to significantly impact their own communities. We fund projects such as the training of community health workers and the provision of resources so families can produce their own food. These projects never “end”; for example, the community health workers use their education to help and teach others.
However, what about other models? For example, what about an organization that provides medical supplies to hospitals abroad? Medical supplies are in high demand; hospitals often lack the most basic materials, such as bandages, sutures, syringes, gloves, etc. While health care cannot be administered without these supplies, some people would accuse an organization like this of not being “sustainable”. They would argue that once the supplies from the donation run out, the hospital has no means of obtaining more supplies; the hospital has not been “empowered” to continue obtaining these necessary supplies.
During the HillTop Conference I had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Bruce Charash, the founder and chairman of Doc2Dock, about this issue of sustainability. Doc2Dock is an organization similar to what I described in the above paragraph: it collects recycled medical supplies in the US and ships them to hospitals and clinics in Africa. These medical supplies save millions of lives. For example, Dr. Charash told the story of a boy dying of malaria in a clinic that had medicine in IV form, but didn’t have IV lines to administer this medicine. This medicine (that had been donated) could cure the boy, but the doctors could not give him the medicine without the IV lines. Luckily Doc2Dock’s container of medical supplies, which had IV lines, arrived in time and the boy was saved. However, there are many similar stories where the patient does not survive – where the patient dies only because the hospital lacked basic materials.
As seen by this example, delivering basic medical supplies has obvious benefits: the potential to save many lives. However, is this practice “sustainable”? Does it matter if this practice is sustainable?
These answers depend on the definition of sustainability. According to Dr. Charash we should consider sustainability on a micro level. He argues that sustainability should mean a permanent impact, such as saving a life. He argues that there is a difference between providing medication for a chronic disease (medication that will eventually run out and the patient’s disease will return) and doing an operation or providing medical supplies to save someone’s life. Thus, according to this reasoning, if an organization can save someone’s life or if it has a permanent impact, then it is sustainable.
Furthermore, Dr. Charash made me realize that we must not let the idea of sustainability hinder worthwhile, beneficial action. It is true that sustainability is the ideal; in a perfect world NGOs would be able to empower hospitals to obtain a constant source of medical supplies. But, in cases where this cannot happen, we should not let a lack of sustainability prevent an organization from having a positive, permanent impact. In the words of Dr. Charash, we must “respond to the urgencies of now”. We cannot wait to respond until we can guarantee sustainability – too many people will have died by then.