October 15, 2015

Coming together in a spirit of unity to spark change

Written by Philomena Okello, White Ribbon Alliance Member and Nursing Officer in Uganda

This post originally appeared on the blog of the White Ribbon Alliance.

My name is Philomena Okello. I am from Lira district, Uganda. I have been a nurse midwife for more than 40 years. In the past two years I have seen more progress for maternal and newborn health than I have seen in my entire career. This has been because of citizen led accountability and the citizens hearings, which I have been involved in from the beginning. As a result of placing accountability in the hands of citizens, we have seen rapid progress.

The problem was, social accountability was not there. Citizens did not know their rights. I did not know my rights. Health workers like me loved their jobs, but we didn’t have what we needed to do our jobs properly. Local leaders wanted to improve the situation but didn’t have the human, nor financial resources, to carry out the promises that national leaders made. Our solution was to bring everyone together: the community, health workers, spiritual leaders, politicians and decision makers, men, women and children. We came together in a spirit of unity. There was no blaming, no pointing of fingers. Change came fast.

A big change is that citizens know that they have got the power. They know their rights. Now, health workers are more friendly to the citizens, they explain what is happening and what is missing from the health services (such as drug stock outs).

After a long time without progress, operating theatres which had been built, and never used, have been renovated. Maternity wards have been built which had stalled for 7 years. We are seeing more women delivering in health facilities. There is electricity in place for the first time and health workers have been recruited.

We haven’t solved all the problems but processes are now in place and the people have confidence that our voices are being heard, and we are part of finding the solutions, and implementing the changes. Our campaign and Citizen Hearings have been active not only in the community, but also at the District, and National Level. That took a lot of time, leadership and resources to co-ordinate. Many partners contributed. It is important to realise that while White Ribbon Alliance and other organisations have many passionate volunteers, this work of mobilising the community cannot be done without resources. We thank all of you who support the Citizen Hearings – past and future. Media involvement has also been critical. Our national Citizens’ Hearing took place on TV. Our journalists have been active partners, helping inform the people of their rights, and holding our leaders accountable.

I too am trained as a Citizen Journalist; other citizen journalist colleagues are here in this room. We are reporting back to our countries about what is happening here in New York. If we didn’t, how will citizens know what our leaders are promising in their name? And if citizens do not know, we cannot hold them to account.

Above all, together with the media, we are creating a feedback loop – so that citizens are heard by our leaders, and our leaders are accountable to our citizens. The District leaders have told us that the Citizen Hearings have been an ‘eye opener’, while central government is also happy to know the truth about what is really needed. We are part of that feedback loop, here in New York to tell you how citizen-led accountability brings results.

Today we launch the global report on the Citizens Hearings on behalf of World Vision, IPPF, Save the Children and White Ribbon Alliance. It is called ‘NOTHING ABOUT US WITHOUT US’. In here are gathered the recommendations from more than 100 citizen hearings around the world. But this is just the beginning. In every country citizens are now calling for greater engagement for greater progress. Yes, it is our democratic right to be consulted and involved in the decisions made about our health. But it is more than that.

Making sure citizens are in the forefront of the push for accountability is the best and only way to bring sustainable change in our countries, so that we can really transform the lives of women, newborn, children and adolescents around the world.