Wonks, geeks, celebs and ministers gather to ‘bake a cake’ for child survival

Birthday Cake

Casual readers of grocery store tabloids are familiar with the trend of celebrity couple name mashups, bringing us the likes of Brangelina and TomKat. But a different name was overheard in the hallways of the Child Survival Call to Action last week: “Benary”. The moniker was coined by our friend John Fawcett at RESULTS after Ben Affleck and Secretary Hillary Clinton embraced onstage Thursday, surrounded by 700 of their closest friends, activists, CEOs, religious leaders, technical experts, and our very own #ONEmom bloggers.

The unusual pairing was in DC for a two-day event co-hosted by USAID, UNICEF, and the governments of Ethiopia and India, designed to renew global efforts to eliminate preventable child deaths. Along with many other speakers, they repeated a number of stark truths: we have made incredible progress, reducing child deaths by 70 percent in the last 50 years. We have simple, powerful, and cheap tools to prevent the majority of child deaths. And yet last year, 7.6 million children did not survive to the age of 5.

In the face of these truths, the Call to Action was designed to build up the political will and technical expertise needed to chart a new course toward a scaled up effort to fight child deaths, driving toward the achievement of Millennium Development Goal 4 and a target of fewer than 2 million deaths by 2035.

This target was widely debated among panelists throughout the event: Is it possible? Is it too ambitious, or not ambitious enough? Does it have developing country leaders’ buy-in? What will we do differently to get it done? Though answers to these questions differed, there were a few paraphrased reactions that stuck out:

From Secretary Clinton: We are committed to five strategic shifts: 1) a focus on the highest disease burden countries; 2) a focus on sub-populations and inequality; 3) a prioritization of high-impact solution for specific killers of kids; 4) better addressing socioeconomic factors, including education levels and women’s empowerment; and 5) promotion of mutual accountability, common metrics, and transparency for results

From Hans Rosling, a self-described YouTube “edutainer” and clear crowd favorite: “In my own family’s lifetime, my country of Sweden has bridged the entire span of child mortality rates. My grandmother’s Sweden in 1890 was today’s Nigeria; my mother’s Sweden was India; my Sweden was China; my daughter’s Sweden was Chile; and my granddaughter’s Sweden is Singapore. So yes, progress is possible. But we need to make sure that, rather than setting one target for everyone, we leave room for countries’ circumstances and also account for inequities. We also need to remember that health comes first, then wealth.”

From Julio Frenk, Dean of the Harvard School of Public Health: “As we examine what works, it’s important that countries have the flexibility to adapt—not just adopt—plans to reduce child mortality. We also need to prepare ourselves for the consequences of success. If we succeed in helping more kids to survive and thrive, we need to plan for the next generation of health challenges.”

Ultimately, the day was filled with lots of talk about how talk is not enough. Indeed, with the day framed as a call to action, the success of the event cannot be measured by reflection over the weekend. Instead, we can start to measure the event’s impact in the coming months if leadership from the global child survival community coalesces to determine concrete plans of action, and we can do even more to track impact in the coming years, as we see just how rapidly the global community can scale up its progress in reducing child deaths. In other words—to borrow from the 5th birthday narrative running throughout the event—we’ve brought all the right ingredients into the kitchen, preheated the oven, and greased the cake pan, but it will take time to see whether or not this cake rises to the occasion and turns out as something sweet and worthy of celebration.