How do we know we can trust each other?

March 19, 2014

At WGHA we often emphasize how well our members work together. In the words of a new transplant to Seattle – we are “bizarrely collaborative”. But of course, that isn’t always the case. There are so many difficult details to work out, whether in the lab or the field. That’s where WGHA comes in.

We work with members to explore whether overlaps do – or can-- exist. The ultimate goal is always improving health equity for those most in need. With that as a starting point, we convene conversations we hope will lead to new programs or incorporation of new technologies.

Let’s face it. There are plenty of times organizations can’t work together. Different cultures, missions and desired outcomes have to be taken into account. But if the ultimate goal of better health is at the core of the work, it’s worth a try.

Partnerships between NGOs and the military are a prime example. There is increasing evidence of the need for a comprehensive approach to global stability that prioritizes development alongside defense and diplomacy. In fact, the military is ramping up teams to expand its humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts.

That’s why WGHA hosted a day of meetings with key leaders from Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) recently. The team members serve in the Civil Affairs Battalion and develop long-range plans, policies and programs in support of USAID and the State Department, as well as regional defense objectives.

I never imagined military teams would include veterinarians, environmental science and engineering experts, international law attorneys and preventive medicine physicians and medics. These men and women have studied or served in Iraq, Haiti, throughout Asia and even Uganda and Tanzania. They speak languages ranging from Mandarin to Spanish.

Despite their experience with infectious diseases, maternal and child health and especially water and sanitation, they weren’t familiar with the Gates Foundation or PATH or Washington State University’s animal health program. They’ve met teams from World Vision and Medical Teams International and others in the field, but suspicion and misunderstanding derailed efforts to work together.

Success, on any project, comes down to alignment. Here’s an example; the visitors from JBLM were particularly interested in a refrigeration technology they heard about at the Gates Foundation that protects vaccines for weeks at a time without electricity and a water purification device developed by Cascade Designs that might be used for citizens and troops in-country. On the other hand, data collected about medical capacity and facilities collected by the military might be shared with NGOs. 

To put it mildly, it isn’t easy. Partnerships certainly won’t always be practical and in the end might not result in the outcome we’d hoped for, but given the complexity of the problems (as World Vision CEO Rich Stearns says, “This is rocket science.”), we need to be open when possible to partnership. Who knows? Maybe these honest conversations held around a table in Seattle before the players are in the field will lead to transformative outcomes. We have to try.

-Lisa Cohen
Executive Director
Washington Global Health Alliance