6 key tips from global health leaders

Left to right: Genevie Fernandes, Rachel Forster, Evelyn Balsells, Prashanth Reddy, Joey Brooke and Andrea Fuentes Pacheco

Left to right: Genevie Fernandes, Rachel Forster, Evelyn Balsells, Prashanth Reddy, Joey Brooke and Andrea Fuentes Pacheco

By Evelyn Balsells and Genevie Fernandes

Last week, a few of us who are global health students and researchers at the University of Edinburgh got together to watch the live-streaming of the Women Leaders in Global Health (WLGH) 2018 Conference held at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. Though titled ‘Women Leaders in Global Health’, we believe that lessons from this event apply to all young people who are passionate about global health, regardless of gender or age. In this post, we present 6 tips on leadership in global health.

1. Read and stay up-to-date

Annette Kennedy said, “try to read the newspaper everyday”. This is a very simple and yet easily neglected piece of advice. All her co-panelists unanimously agreed on the importance to read within one’s field and expand to other fields as well. Global health is as much about water, sanitation, gender, education and politics as it is about health. As the saying goes, knowledge is power, and this wide knowledge provides us with a context to think critically and make more informed decisions.   

2. Listen and be a spokesperson for the voiceless

Soumya Swaminathan urged us to listen to the recipients of healthcare and understand the context within which healthcare is delivered, as this will help in needs-based planning and also ensure greater acceptance of healthy behaviours and health services. Peter Piot experienced first-hand the benefits of listening to people, when as the founding director of UNAIDS, he purposefully chose to attend meetings with AIDS activists and listen to their concerns at the start of country visits. He added that as a leader, while these concerns could  seem miniscule when dealing with the big policy decisions, policies will fail if they do not take into account the needs of the people, especially those who are marginalised.

3. Act, especially on what is already known

More than one speaker emphasised the need to act. Joanne Liu, took this dialogue further by urging us to act on what we already know, rather than always waiting for more evidence. She raised the case of sanitation and women’s safety and how we know that in so many parts of the world, women face daily threats and violence on their way for sanitation, and yet, we are still not safeguarding these paths. Wafa El-Sadr spoke about the need to understand and act on the four I's of sexism ~ Ideological, Interpersonal, Internal and Institutional. How do we act? Get information, learn about your rights, share this information with others, be sensitive to people around you, and support others when they need it.

4. Communicate, own your words and actions, and be prepared for the backlash

Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija, Chief Humanitarian Coordinator in Nigeria, said that leaders can have good influence and bad influence, and that is why they need to understand the weight of their words and actions and communicate effectively. Standing up for what you believe is right, will not always be easy. You will face questions and backlash when you make tough and especially unconventional choices. Panelists kindly reminded us we need to have answers for such questions ready. This does not mean knowing everything, but rather being rigorous in everything we do. Use evidence and people’s voices as much as you can. Answers can also be found in identifying and acting on one’s own unconscious bias.

 5. It is not all about numbers, it is about people

Annalisa Jenkins shared a quote from her daughter during her football practice - “If we don’t keep scores, we are only practicing.” This quote highlights the priority that metrics receive in global health. Donors want to see numbers to ensure the value of their financing in LMICs, and push for quantifiable indicators and statistics. But we need to go beyond the numbers and also capture people’s experiences. While we have global burden of disease data available, Emmanuella Gakidou explained how it is important to seek a more nuanced picture of health issues at the country and regional level. A more informative picture will require both quantitative and qualitative research that includes the voices of women and men in global health.

6. Power comes from working together

As a young female leader in Pakistan, Anita Zaidi spoke about how she set up an Advisory Committee with senior male leaders, which eventually gained her acceptance and respect. This effort to include and involve people, especially senior stakeholders, and to learn from them, was her key tip for young leaders. Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija added that “your celling must be their floor,” emphasising on the need to mentor and take young men and women along with you as you grow. Leadership is also not all about gender, it is about diversity and celebrating this diversity in the workplace. Arachu Castro could not have said it more clearly: the concept of minority is not about numbers, it is about power. From her own experience, Joanne Liu said phenotype, not gender, was the main issue growing up, urging us to celebrate fluidity and diversity in our teams and work community, regardless of gender, age, race, ethnicity, and the several other factors. We need to strive for inclusivity. Through these lenses, we can have true leaders, as described by Laura Londen, who are able to realise that “injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.”


The sessions that were live-streamed were truly inspiring and thought-provoking. We definitely took home many lessons from this conference. Yet, it was hard to overlook some things: A conference room filled with women, barring a handful of male participants and speakers. The gender equity divide was constantly referenced as it was the failure to recognise the importance of roles of carers and home makers, the vast majority of whom are women but also men. Another worrying point was the lack of speakers and conference steering committee members from institutions in the Global South. This concern has also been raised by others. It was sad to learn from the conference organiser, Heidi Larson, about the several scholars from LMICs being denied a UK travel visa to attend the WLGH 2018. Recent UK-based global health conferences have been affected too. Dr. Larson’s announcement served as an invitation to reflect on and recognise our own privileges, responsibilities, and challenges, as international students and researchers.

 While live-streaming the conference is an important step towards inclusion and access, we also need to consider the challenges that precludes organisers to achieve diversity in participation, which they actively seek in such global health fora. These challenges are problematic as it can enable the ownership of the gender equity agenda within the hands of the privileged. Continued and concerted efforts are therefore important and much needed towards including diverse participants, especially from LMICs by organising regional conferences in these settings. We thus appreciate that the next WLGH conference will be a continuous project until held in Kigali, Rwanda, taking the gender equity agenda in the right direction.

We earnestly appreciate WLGH 2018 for its important lessons and the positive reinforcement for all of early career professionals in global health. We would like to end with an inspiring quote by Dr. Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija - “If they do not give you a seat at the table, you pull up a folding chair. If they don’t let you do that, sit on the table.”


Evelyn Balsells and Genevie Fernandes are both PhD researchers at the University of Edinburgh. Evelyn is a researcher at the Centre for Global Health Research. Her research focuses on the burden of infectious diseases globally. Genevie is a researcher at the Global Health Governance Programme. She writes on global health issues with a focus on reproductive, maternal and child health. You can follow her on @genevie2587. We would like to thank Diane White and the Centre for Global Health Research for their support to live-stream the conference at the University of Edinburgh. All the views shared in this post are held personally by the authors and do not represent the views of the institutions they are affiliated with.