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Let's Work Hard to Keep Engaging Youth in International Negotiations

This week, I have the pleasure to feature an article written by two of my friends, who are passionate about global health, youth and advocacy issues. Jouhayna Bentaleb and Yassen Tcholakov, both medical students at the University of Montreal (Quebec), have been part of the World Health Assembly last May 2014 and they are today sharing their thoughts about the event, as the United Nations General Assembly starts in only a few days in New York City.


Youth are increasingly involved in international processes that are shaping the world. We can highlight the example of the United Nations where member states have been recommended to bring youth delegates for over a decade. Some organizations such as the International Federation of Medical Students' Associations (IFMSA) have been also engaging in similar processes for a very long time. The federation, which was founded in 1961 only a few years after the United Nations (UN) and the World Health Organization (WHO), currently represents over 1.3 million medical students from 110 countries. It maintains working relations with a number of international organizations including the WHO. Through that relation, IFMSA can participate in the organization's meetings including the World Health Assembly (WHA).

The WHA is one of the most important global health conferences. It brings health representatives including health ministers from all UN member states to Geneva once per year to discuss global health issues. This year, for the second consecutive time, the IFMSA organized a pre-conference for youth where issues that were being raised during the WHA were discussed and an advocacy strategy was prepared on a number of important issues including the post-2015 development agenda, access to essential medicines, non-communicable diseases, and adolescent health.

IFMSA has taken on the role of organizing the advocacy strategy of youth civil society organizations since last year when the first Youth pre-WHA was held in Geneva. Both members from IFMSA as well as from other youth organizations were invited to this five- day event held in Geneva immediately prior to the WHA. This event was meant both as a coordination meeting and as an opportunity for capacity building amongst young leaders involved in global health. Participants, numbering approximately 50, had the chance to interact with invited speakers representing member states, the WHO, intergovernmental organizations and NGOs working on the topics chosen for the conference. Among the invited speakers were many eminent global health figures including:

  • Graham Lister MSc, PhD, economist and sociologist who coordinated the first UK programme on Global Health;
  • Robert Marten, senior partner at the Rockefeller foundation;
  • Andrew Cassels, past Director of Strategy in the office of the Director-General of WHO, and founding director of the Global Health Associates;
  • Peter Mamacos, Director of Multilateral Relations, Office of Global Affairs at the US Department of Health and Human Services; and
  • Ilona Kickbusch, Director of the Global Health Programme at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva

The participants of the pre-conference spent a considerable amount of time developing an advocacy strategy for IFMSA. This was done in a systematic way looking at IFMSA policy statements on relevant issues (available at and extracting what would be most relevant to this 67th WHA. By participating in the Executive board (EB) meeting of the WHO in January 2014 and being in contact with member states, IFMSA had insight on the direction the discussions would take at the WHA. During the pre-WHA, many relevant policy briefs, letters to member states and interventions were produced and used during the WHA. Finally, an advocacy strategy and coordination mechanisms were created.

During the WHA, the delegates engaged in direct advocacy with member state representatives, participated in many discussions with other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as well as with WHO staff, and delivered interventions on the behalf of IFMSA. The objective was to influence decision makers thus ensuring that issues that the organization believed essential were not forgotten. For example, IFMSA had a strong stance on indicators in post-2015 development agenda disaggregated not only for socio-economic status, gender, and geographical location, as generally agreed, but also for age and social vulnerability in order to deliver on the equity objective of the development agenda.

IFMSA has provided input at numerous points in the negotiation processes and this has led to the inclusion of many of our advocacy goals in the final resolutions of the meeting. Furthermore, IFMSA also engaged in conversation with many member states in order to call them for the inclusion of youth delegates; for which we overwhelmingly received positive response. Our efforts on this matter have shown positive outcome; some countries had within their ranks youth delegates following our previous year's advocacy, and many shared positive feedback in the work of youth on their national delegation.

Yet, at the dawn of this year's UN GA it is important to now reflect on the work from the past WHA; and to remember how all the discussions will be fed into higher policymaking processes. Even though many fruitful discussions occurred at the WHA and certainly in other venues, it is important to highlight that the selected post-2015 health goal from the WHA - UHC - is different from the one provided by the open working group (OWG) on sustainable development - healthy lives. This discrepancy illustrates the challenge that policy makers will face when trying to come to consensus around key issues such as climate change and the post-2015 development process.

As an organization, IFMSA believes that youth can have a positive impact when engaged in processes such as the international negotiations within UN organizations. We will keep working on with confidence given the expressed support by many eminent global health figures. Dr. Margaret Chan, Director General of the WHO, Anders Nordström, Ambassador for Global Health at the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet medical journal, all mentioned IFMSA's work as being valuable and influential in the field of global health. We hope that our work not only bring youth voices in the policy discussions, but also through our presence in many venues contributes to aligning global policies for best of all mankind.

Jouhayna Bentaleb

MD Candidate | Class 2015

University of Montreal | Faculty of Medicine

Yassen Tcholakov, MIH

MD Candidate | Class 2015

University of Montreal | Faculty of Medicine


Jouhayna Bentaleb, a medical student at the University of Montreal, currently sits on the international team of the largest medical exchange programs worldwide. She is also a member of the Board of Directors of IFMSA-Quebec.

Yassen Tcholakov is a medical student at the University of Montreal. He holds a Master of Internation Health from the University of Copenhagen. He has experience in global health and sustainable development policy and sits on the board of a number of NGOs.

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