Health Education in the Developing World (WHO), Switzerland
Louise Ashwell (2011, History)
This summer, I carried out an eleven-week internship at the Geneva headquarters of the World Health Organisation (WHO). The WHO is a UN constituent agency, whose role is to generate reliable health information, data and guidelines. I was an employee of the WHO Department of Communications in their Writing and Messaging team. The opportunity to help participate in the creation of public health campaigns was a unique experience, and one I feel honoured to have been a part of. I have come away convinced that the importance of communications in managing health crises by educating and enhancing awareness of disease and healthy living cannot be stressed enough.
I obtained this placement via the Cambridge Global Health Internship Scheme. Where I differed from the other students on the scheme who worked at the World Health Organisation was that instead of working in one of its disease programme ‘clusters’, I was in a centralised department whose role was to supply communications products spanning every single health issue which the WHO works on. This provided me with a uniquely holistic understanding of the organisation’s work, as well as the internal politics of the UN organisations more generally.
Another difference between my work and that of other Global Health interns was that rather than being set a specific project which lasted the entirety of the internship, my work for the Department consisted of being continually set smaller-scale, ad hoc communications activities and products to complete. There’s absolutely no tea-making or photocopying here: all of the work you are set as an intern is work other staff members would themselves be doing if they had the time. As a member of the Writing and Messaging team, my role consisted of producing the Department’s written products. These could range from writing the script for a video about stunting, designed to educate health professionals in identifying symptoms, to preparing the communications strategy for the publication of a WHO statement highlighting the abuse experienced by women during childbirth.
Creating this content each time followed a similar process of research, drafting and writing, but within the research stage, to get the information required to write an article, say, could range from reading technical documents to hour-long conference calls with scientific experts from across the world. The need to be clear – I became well versed in the scientific ‘jargon’ which the technical staff in the organisation tended to write their reports in – concise and above all completely accurate will carry over to my writing whatever communications I do in the future, and was very helpful to have drummed in!
I was set two longer-term assignments over the course of my internship, which I completed while writing or editing material as and when it was needed. The first was to write a series of six feature articles, one for each of the WHO regions in which its Member States are grouped, ahead of the ICN2, an inter-governmental meeting on nutrition being jointly organised in November by WHO and FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organisation. From a communications perspective, this provided an opportunity to immerse myself in the material I was investigating and the articles’ subjects. One of the highlights of my internship was a conversation with a 72 year-old woman from Seoul called Mrs Choi, whose experiences of high blood pressure and obesity formed the basis of what would otherwise have seemed a very dry article on cooperation between the health sector and local government in South Korea to build health facilities for the treatment of non-communicable diseases. It was useful to realise how crucial it is to create effective writing to have a human interest thread running through a piece. The second project was to create sample ‘talking points’ which technical officers from the organisation could refer to if called upon to give information about various natural disasters to members of the press. This provided a fascinating insight into media relations more generally, as it forced me to consider what information journalists should be
provided – or not, as the case may be – to accurately report the public health risks of the particular disaster and reassure the public about the action being taken by WHO on the ground. This was definitely a worthwhile insight into communications in its most practical, useful sense.
My internship fell during the escalation of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which made for a particularly privileged insight into how communications are mobilised to inform and educate.
Weekly department meetings meant I was let in on up-to-date information regarding the state of the crisis and the WHO response. I volunteered to help at the WHO Virtual Press Conference following the consultation of international experts on potential treatments and vaccines for Ebola, which exposed me to television, radio and digital journalists from household names like Reuters and the BBC frantically writing copy based on these experts’ findings.
Alongside my day-to-day tasks, I regularly attended team meetings, where I was struck by the extent to which my questions were welcomed and opinions valued. By the end of my internship, I was being asked to edit colleagues’ articles – a daunting, but valuable process, which helped to make me feel like a team member. I was also taken aback by how willing people were to give up their time to talk to me, and the internship provided a really good opportunity to meet people across many different divisions. I’m especially interested, after completing a dissertation last year on the development of the UK Rape Crisis movement, in working in the women’s sector, and more specifically organisations which work with victims of domestic and sexual violence. The opportunity to speak with employees who worked in this area, as well as capitalise on my WHO pass to attend a Human Rights Council side event at the UN about abuse specifically against older women, allowed me to learn so much more about these fascinating, urgent issues.
It has been inspiring this summer to be in an environment where colleagues are so passionate about the potential of their work. From health education to precautionary advocacy to management of natural disasters: I have had my eyes opened to the role of communications for promoting public health – not just to inform, but to engage and ultimately encourage healthier habits. I could not have afforded to take on this internship without the financial assistance of the Committee, so may I take this opportunity once again to thank them for their generosity.