Working as a Global Health Fellow with Access Health Africa (AHA) and World Altering Medicine (WAM) has allowed me a new perspective of what a non-governmental organization (NGO) can do and provide in the global health field. Compared to aid organizations that most people are familiar with (Unicef, USAID, Partners in Health) AHA and WAM are smaller, but no less capable of providing quality services. I came to this realization recently while in a meeting with these implementing partners who are all working to address the issue of cervical cancer throughout the country.
Malawi has the highest rate of cervical cancer in the world (75 per 100,000). Cervical cancer is entirely preventable but about 63% of women who develop cervical cancer in Malawi die from it. “Screen and Treat” is a proven intervention to diagnose cervical cancer and treat it at an early stage. Currently, the Malawian government has started to roll out a program to provide screen and treat equipment and training to all rural health centers in the country. Many large organizations are helping the government roll out this program country-wide. Until screen and treat becomes widespread allowing cervical cancers to be treated at an earlier stage, there is going to be a great number of women who need advance treatments including surgical intervention (radical hysterectomy).
There is currently a backlog of women in the central region of Malawi (where we mainly operate) that need radical hysterectomy. We were first made aware of this backlog through our partners at Nkhoma Private Hospital, where we run the Watsi program that funds surgeries. AHA and WAM are interested in addressing the issue of cervical cancer, so we set out to explore potential options of maybe helping rid of the backlog. Through the process of making connections with government officials and other organizations who are working to address this issue in Malawi, we were invited to partake in a task-force that consists of many large organizations and the Ministry of Health to gain a better understanding of the work that is already being done here.
The first task-force meeting that we attended, I was completely intimidated by the names and organizations around the table to the point where I didn’t think we even belonged. The information gathered was invaluable and when the time came to introduce ourselves, we simply stated who we were and that we were interested in learning more about the work that was being done already. Immediately after, we were told that there are many organizations (with large budgets and teams) that are working on up-scaling the screen and treat option and there is a great need for implementing partners to help with advanced treatments (like radical hysterectomy).
I couldn’t believe it, this is something we have already developed a proposal to do, help rid the surgical backlog! Here we were at this meeting, the whole time I was thinking, “there is no way that our smaller organizations can possibly fill any gap that is not already covered by large-scale implementing partners,” to be proven completely wrong. Our organizations CAN fill the gap and so much more.
This experience offered me the opportunity to reflect and really think about the strengths of our organizations. In this example, we have expertise and interest in an area that is not covered by other large organizations (access to surgery). We also have taken the time to build partnerships with the communities we serve and focus on providing access to health in conjunction with community members and clinicians there. Being a small organization offers us the opportunity to have more personal relationships with other organizations (such as Watsi) through which we can all work together to provide services because they are able to put a face to the organization and trust us to get the job done. These personal relationships also make our current programs more successful because we have boots on the ground working hand in hand with our Malawian community partners. We may be ‘small’ but our reach is far.