In a timely display of diverse ideas and unified purpose, the 154th session of the World Health Organization (WHO) Executive Board convened in Geneva last week. On the table: an urgent and wide-ranging agenda that, among other topics, specifically addressed a number of critical focus areas for Access Accelerated, including universal health coverage (UHC) and the follow-up to the political declaration of the third High-Level Meeting of the UN General Assembly on the prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs).
The WHO report to the Board on NCD prevention and management provided a useful summary of gains made in 2023, with support extended to over 80 countries to integrate NCD services into their healthcare systems. However, the Director-General also acknowledged the slower pace of progress on NCDs in recent years, largely due to the impact of COVID-19.
In the ensuing discussions, representatives from member states also identified the significant and persistent barriers to progress on NCDs presented by armed conflict, climate change, and humanitarian crises. These continue to test the resilience and capabilities of health systems around the world in addressing the needs of people living with NCDs.
While challenges were front and center, member states also offered various pathways forward, with an emphasis on the complex interconnectedness of these overarching health issues, with many countries, including Japan, highlighting the central role of primary health care (PHC) and UHC in strengthening the NCD response.
Better cooperation and learning can unlock stronger implementation
Country-level implementation remains a widespread stumbling block, with resource constraints—both financial and human—presenting significant hurdles. Brunei Darussalam acknowledged that the implementation of their national NCD plan has proven “very challenging”, attributing the lack of success to “limited manpower and technical capabilities”. To address this, the member state representative urged a focus on not only what needs to be done but also how it is to be done. This echoes repeated calls for country-level support, guidance, technical assistance, and knowledge sharing.
Indeed, improved cooperation between countries emerged as a strong theme of the session, with many member states advocating for the better exchange of best practices and knowledge. Those in attendance acknowledged that diverse social, cultural, political, and economic contexts demand a context-specific, local response to NCDs. However, it is also clear that a collaborative and all-encompassing approach involving governments, civil societies, and the private sector remains pivotal to advancing progress. The representative from Malaysia put it succinctly: “There is a need to strengthen NCD prevention and control and the health sector cannot stand alone in the battle against NCDs.”
Financing remains critical to a meaningful NCD response
The 2025 WHO NCD targets, which include a goal to reduce major NCD mortality by 25%, are approaching fast, and member states collectively recognized that progress has fallen far short of these goals. In fact, according to WHO no country is on track to meet all of these targets. With that in mind, members issued a call for sustainable financing solutions and investment as a means to decisively address NCDs. Several countries highlighted the ways in which the rising NCD burden threatens the financial sustainability of health systems and the need for financial resources and political commitment.
Representing WHO African member states, Senegal recommended mobilizing:
“more financial resources to promote health and to prevent these [NCD] conditions through strengthening innovative financing mechanisms, including [taxation on] tobacco, sugary drinks, and alcohol, and indeed developing public-private partnerships.”
Meanwhile, Brunei Darussalam shared its concerns regarding a lack of available NCD funding, noting that:
“while there are established global funding mechanisms for pandemic and health emergencies, such mechanisms for tackling NCDs are more disparate and limited. There is a clear need to explore how we strengthen the global funding landscape for NCDs based on existing models and importantly how member states can tap into these funds to support their NCD initiatives.”
How Access Accelerated is supporting countries to address UHC and NCDs
Even in the face of mounting and varied challenges, ranging from aging populations and poverty to climate change and economic uncertainties, there appears to be a strong consensus that stronger PHC systems that integrate NCDs is crucial path to achieving UHC. Member states also reiterated the need for more efficiency, optimized resource mobilization and allocation, sustainable health financing, stronger partnerships and coordination, and capacity development.
These ideas are strongly endorsed by Access Accelerated. Over the past seven years, our initiative has supported catalytic investments and targeted country support to accelerate both public and private investment that align with country and global UHC and NCD priorities.
What member states articulated so clearly across the week—that these priorities are essential to delivering quality, timely, accessible, and person-centered health services for more equitable and healthier outcomes—fits well with our own mission and vision. It will also continue to be reflected in our strategic goals and activities as Access Accelerated enters the next phase of evolution. That means innovative and sustainable financing solutions, ensuring that countries receive the technical assistance they need, and paving the way for valuable knowledge sharing and information exchanges between governments and other health system stakeholders.
All roads lead to 2025
One key takeaway from the meeting is the undeniable reality that NCDs will be playing a prominent role on the world stage and the global health agenda in 2024, which will in turn lay the groundwork for the fourth UN High-Level Meeting on NCDs in 2025.
The year ahead promises significant preparations, including the World Bank’s Annual Health Financing Forum in April, followed by the World Health Assembly in May, and then the 2nd Global Dialogue on NCD Financing in June. We stand at a critical juncture.
“2024 will be a defining year for global health, and for our WHO,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, in his opening remarks to the Board. “It is a year of opportunity. This year, you have the opportunity to shape the world’s global health strategy for the next four years, in the GWP14 (Fourteenth General Programme of Work)”
For Access Accelerated, 2024 also represents a significant year as we shape our next phase to renew our partnership with the World Bank, support countries to drive improved financing and systems-level changes required to improve the NCD landscape, and continue to hold ourselves accountable to people living with NCDs across the world.