Introducing Working Group Co-Chairs: Maternal and Child Health

April 15, 2024

Welcome to our new blog series highlighting a very important group within Global Health Council: the Working Group co-chairs. Through this series, we will introduce you to each of the co-chairs and provide an overview of their work plans and priorities for the coming months.

For those of you who may not be familiar with the Working Groups, they are a place where members come together to discuss strategy, share information, and align messaging in order to positively influence global health policy. These are the place where theory and practice are put into action.

In this post, we are introducing you to the co-chairs of the Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (MNCH) Working Group: Dorothy Monza (RESULTS) and Rachel Wisthuff (UNICEF USA).

What do your organizations do?

Dorothy:  RESULTS is an anti-poverty organization with grassroots volunteers across the United States. We recruit people and train them to use their voices to influence political decisions that will bring an end to poverty. We also work with international advocacy partners doing similar work in their own countries.

Rachel: UNICEF USA is a U.S. based nonprofit that advances the global mission of UNICEF by rallying the American public to support the world’s most vulnerable children. Through our advocacy work, we focus on connecting the great base of support for UNICEF to influence U.S. decision makers to advance policies and appropriations funding that lift up and empower children.

What is the mission of the GHC Working Group you chair?

Rachel: The MNCH Working Group pulls together stakeholders who are committed to driving change, impact, and better health outcomes for children and their mothers.  We focus on children under the age of five who may be most vulnerable, and on preventing child and maternal deaths.

Why was it important for your organization to be a part of this Working Group?

Rachel: It was important for UNICEF USA to be a part of the conversation because of the great work that the U.S. government does, in terms of its investment and leadership. Partnering with implementing organizations, other UN agencies, national governments, and local civil society organizations is key to UNICEF’s work in MCH. Being a part of the Working Group better enables us to do that even more effectively. The whole ecosystem needs to work together in order for the most vulnerable mothers and children to be reached.

Dorothy: RESULTS is an organization primarily focused on advocacy. The Working Group is an important forum to connect with partners who engage with these programs, and with the U.S. government, in different ways, as implementers, faith-based organizations, technical advisors, etc. Working in partnership allows us to coordinate, maximize the impact of our individual advocacy efforts, and connect with a broader audience of policymakers.

What do you hope the Working Group will be able to achieve during your term as Co-Chair?

Rachel: We want to shore up bipartisan support for maternal and child health. Across the global health community, it’s a tough fiscal and budgetary environment and, as we head into the election cycle, it’s difficult to know what the next year has in store.  

Also, about half of the House has been elected since the 116th Congress began (2020). There are many new members of Congress who’ve never been exposed to this work before. Given how diverse our Working Group membership is, we have a lot of opportunity to educate members of Congress as to how global maternal and child health impacts the U.S., even at their district level.

Many  investments in maternal and child healthcare go towards strengthening larger health systems. That’s another component of our advocacy and messaging to Congress; if countries have stronger health systems, then they’re more likely to develop into economic partners for the U.S. and be more stable over the long term. Just making those connections for Members will be important this year.

Dorothy: There will also be opportunities for the Biden Administration to demonstrate support for maternal and child health and leverage the powerful role of the U.S. government to advance health equity. We want to ensure the advocacy community is making its priorities known and proactively engaging with the Administration to stay up to date on existing work and make the case for bold new investments. For example, soon Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance will launch its Investment Opportunity for its next strategic period, Gavi 6.0. This is the first time donors will be pledging to Gavi since the introduction of new malaria vaccines and it is a key moment for global immunization. We want to see the U.S. make a bold, multi-year pledge to Gavi. World leaders will also gather to replenish the International Development Association, the arm of the World Bank focused on the poorest countries. We want to see strong U.S. leadership here, as well.

What is the value of addressing these issues as a coalition?

Dorothy: There’s a lot of ways that policymakers become interested in these issues. So, it’s really an asset that we have such a variety of organizations represented. The diversity of our Working Group members is powerful. Bringing together that depth and breadth of partners is really helpful.

Rachel: There is so much happening on the Hill that it can be hard for Congressional staff to know what to prioritize. When there is an organized coalition, including names they recognize, like RESULTS or UNICEF USA, it stands out to them. For example, 37 groups signed on to the community letter we sent to the Hill in support of our appropriations asks this year. Members and staff seeing that alignment, and seeing it consistently, has been integral in building Congressional champions over time. The Administration also values our ability to coordinate and proactively plan because it makes it easier for them to plug into different opportunities.

I agree with Dorothy that the depth of expertise within the Working Group is really important, too. I lean on colleagues that are more focused on nutrition, more focused on immunization, etc. It’s nice to be able to learn from each other.

Is there an example which illustrates the challenge the MNCH Working Group is seeking to address?

Rachel: When the U.S. government launched the “Acting on the Call” agenda in 2014, it helped to focus on a number of priority countries and drive progress on the Sustainable Development Goals. Those  investments have laid the groundwork for us to be better able to respond to pandemics, better distribute vaccines, etc. Being able to celebrate the 10th anniversary of those investments last year was powerful. It was great to see how much progress has been made and what countries have been able to achieve.

Now, with the Preventing Maternal and Child Deaths Framework, the U.S. is building on those investments to accelerate progress by focusing not only on access to health care, but on strengthening quality and enhancing equity. Those focus areas will help in reaching the hardest-to-reach before 2030.

The U.S. government can make a difference. It is challenging at times, but you can’t undersell the difference small, effective, high impact interventions can have on a woman and a child’s life. Something as simple as micronutrients or making sure there’s a skilled birth attendant available to deliver a baby can be transformative.

Dorothy: A big challenge will be reaching policymakers during an election year. A benefit of working with the coalition is the ability to expand our capacity to undertake multiple advocacy strategies that reach different audiences at different times. We know many elected officials will be busy campaigning. But our focus will remain on current members of Congress to keep raising the message that the U.S. should continue investments in global health, and build upon them, in order to achieve our shared goal of ending preventable maternal and child deaths.

What is the most important thing for the broader global health community to know? How can we best support your efforts?

Rachel: We know that these global health accounts are incredibly interconnected and that advocating for a larger funding topline is what helps us all succeed. We’re all united in this common goal. Investments in global health are not only about the health of individuals, but the health of communities, countries, and economies.

Where there are obvious points of alignment with maternal and child health, making those known is really helpful. Whether through malaria programs, TB programs, or elsewhere, there’s a lot of synergy. We will also make it known how our work is supporting and lifting up colleagues across the different health areas.

Dorothy: I totally agree. As advocates, we tend to specialize, but the issues we work on affect individuals who are complex and unique. I am excited to see how advocates are working together in new ways to bring together multiple sectors as new public health tools become available. The malaria vaccines that Gavi is helping roll out are a great example. We know that these vaccines are a new tool—not the end all be all. So, it’s led to great conversations on the importance of the full suite of services needed to end malaria and how we can best align as advocates to support the right resources being available to families at the right time.

Maternal and child health is more expansive than just a narrow set of programs. As advocates, checking in with each other and sharing information across sectors is really helpful.

Rachel: The UN Inter-agency Group for Child Mortality Estimates (IGME), which includes WHO and UNICEF, just released their latest report on child mortality figures. For the first time, child deaths under five have reached a historic low.  One of the points in the report was that a mother’s education is correlated to child mortality. The more a mother is educated, the more likely her child is to survive. That’s huge. We talk about global health and investments a lot, but we know how interconnected these issues all are. Children have a whole life ahead of them and that requires a whole child approach to ensure they not only survive, but thrive.  

Thanks so much to Dorothy and Rachel for sharing with us. Learn more about GHC’s Working Groups here.