One of Ahimsa’s clearest messages is also the simplest: the potential power of partnership, cooperation and networking.
It is a message important in all of Ahimsa’s work, but perhaps most obviously when addressing difficult questions of accessibility: how to make life-improving, life-saving technologies at the edge of health innovation accessible to the poorest, most vulnerable people?
Accessibility and inequality are issues in almost all areas of health, even the most well-known interventions. We’re a long way from universal vaccination, for example, or from full access to clean water and working toilets.
In this context, paradoxes abound. On one hand, we need new technologies to provide marginal gains and scalability, addressing old, intractable problems of health in new, efficient, scalable ways. On the other hand, realising the greatest good often means that going to scale is more important than the actual technology—and the most effective interventions are not always the greatest innovations or the most hi-tech measures. For example, a University Hospital of Geneva project with the simple goal of encouraging handwashing is estimated to be saving eight million lives a year.
Of course, it is possible to achieve the sweet spot where all this comes together: the invention of antiretroviral therapies for HIV was a huge technological achievement, for instance, but was only really globally effective once it had been followed by the novel economic instruments and approaches that were created to increase their availability. This breakthrough was driven by relationships—sometimes cooperative, sometimes combative, but always productive—between scientists, activists, politicians, funders, pharmaceutical companies and others.
The partnerships required to scale up ideas themselves present a kind of paradox: they can be a crippling limiting factor in those cases where actors are unable or unwilling to cooperate, and they cannot be created; but they can also be the key to unlocking the very greatest of potential gains.
With this in mind, Ahimsa is working towards a novel kind of meeting. This annual event, the first of which will take place in October 2018, will be called the Ahimsa Round Table, or ART, and is centered on the importance of collaborative work. “The main idea,” said Ahimsa Founder Jean-François de Lavison, “is to show how we need to break the existing silos in which organizations are working. We need a more holistic approach, with all stakeholders around the table: private companies, NGOs, civil society, academies and others. Applying these stakeholders together is a more efficient way to address global health.”
ART is a new model: a small number of participants will gather, representing different parts of the health landscape including private companies, NGOs, and international organizations. They will bring with them ideas and technologies, in a kind of virtual bazaar: some will want to share their technology; others will come to listen. Gathered around them will be representatives of foundations, universities, student bodies, incubators, academies and social entrepreneurs, ready to build relationships and develop ideas. Everybody will be seeking partners in the work of making the best ideas accessible and affordable.
Ahimsa has been building networks for years—including industrial companies, field organizations, business incubators, creators, entrepreneurs and young people—with the aim of creating profitable, sustainable economic models for health that exceed the sum of their parts. The intention is that ART will build on this tradition, becoming an annual event, giving participants the possibility to meet regularly, show and share their work, and build a bank of experiences over time that can act as a force multiplier for their ideas.
As the forum matures, partners will work on these ideas between gatherings, presenting the results at the meetings. The initial ART in 2018 will form an initial platform, with the rough goal of selecting two or three proven technologies and the same number of new ideas from owners committed to working in this way, then using them to launch the principle and commit to working and sharing in the future. The goal of ART will be a movement: #AhimsaInnovation.
#AhimsaInnovation will combine innovation and social impact investment, taking place on an annual basis. Its aim is to identify innovative projects (Innovation) and work teams (Incubators) so as to offer concrete solutions (Accelerators) to bring these technological innovations to market and ensure that they contribute to social innovation and the empowerment of underprivileged populations.
The goal, in the words of JF de Lavison, is to create “a kind of Davos for poverty, global health and social entrepreneurship.”
ART will serve an advocacy purpose, too; it’s not just operational work that’s siloed. As JF de Lavison points out, “we have a lot of very successful initiatives in the field, but we never speak about them. We need people to understand that if we really want to serve the most vulnerable populations in the world, we must bridge our common activities.”
The idea of collaboration is obviously not new. There is no shortage of people and organisations advocating partnerships and synergies to solve the world’s problems, and huge multilateral organizations have been built on exactly these principles: the STOP TB Partnership, Roll Back Malaria, UNAIDS and more. In the private sector, companies are increasingly judged on the social aspects of their businesses. Investors are more and more interested in ensuring that companies are balanced across all the different social and commercial properties, especially when they’re working in the developing world. Progress is being made. But the job is not yet done, and there are still great gains to be made. Some international organizations remain wary of the private sector; companies operating in developing country contexts are suspicious of NGOs; everywhere, there are opportunities to push more strongly for real cooperation.
In this context the world boasts an abundant if far too often overlooked resource: young people. “They don’t have the same reluctance to work in this way that older generations do,” says JF de Lavison. “They’re much more open, much more flexible, receptive. The idea is not to oppose younger and older generations, but to make them work together.”
The conclusion, as JF de Lavison sees it, is optimistic. “We have everything in our hands today; everything that we need, exists. What’s missing is leadership. It is a question of leadership, management, and coordination. We can be much more successful than we are today. And for that, we need strong leaders. ART and #Ahimsainnovation will help us find and nurture them.”