What activists need to know about GAVI’s big vaccine meeting in Stockholm

Sweden: home to famous DJs, sunken ships, delicious gummy candy, and—for two days this October—150 vaccine donors, manufacturers and advocates from around the world.

I traveled to Stockholm last week for the GAVI Alliance’s Mid-Term Review (MTR) meeting to take stock of the progress GAVI has achieved and explore its challenges and opportunities in the years ahead.  Here are a few top themes I heard over and over:

Results matter, and it’s OK to celebrate them: GAVI was proud to announce that their program was on track to immunize 243 million children and ultimately save nearly 4 million lives by 2015—just as they had promised at their 2011 pledging conference.  In the words of COO Helen Evans, this was cause for a (humble) “hallelujah moment,” and many donors reaffirmed how pleased their governments were to be supporting such a worthy effort.  In fact, even though the MTR was not billed as a pledging event, Sweden and Korea announced increases to their current support for GAVI, which unlocked matching funds from the Gates Foundation.

Childhood (and parenthood) are important motivators: The MTR’s welcoming reception was held at the Junibacken—a beloved children’s museum in Stockholm. We were greeted by a children’s choir, and regaled with the tales of storybook heroine Pippi Longstocking. It was meant to remind each of us of the simple joys of childhood. Throughout the MTR, I heard politicians and advocates reference their own childhood or parenthood as a driver of their support for GAVI. One Swedish MP said on a panel that for him, GAVI “was personal”— a number of his family members had died needlessly from vaccine-preventable diseases.  It was a good reminder that GAVI isn’t just about shots in arms; it’s about children who are deserving of a healthy start to life. Telling their stories may just be our smartest strategy.

What does “adolescent” GAVI look like? In many ways, GAVI is the student that thrived in elementary school, but who has now arrived to middle school facing peer pressure to do a number of things differently.  Some want GAVI to take on more vaccines that are currently in existence (like those for polio and cholera).  Others want GAVI to show more advanced planning for vaccines that aren’t available now, but that might be game-changers in a few years (like malaria).  Many want GAVI to reconsider which countries are eligible for its support—right now, GAVI only serves low-income countries, but there are millions of children who are un-immunized living in poor parts of middle-income countries that could also benefit from GAVI’s model.  Others still—enticed by the successes GAVI has had so far—would like GAVI to add other services for maternal and child health along with vaccines, or would like GAVI to extend its lower prices for other organizations to use in emergency situations.  Nearly all agreed that GAVI still had more work to do to strengthen the health systems in which its vaccines are delivered.

In any case, GAVI may have some growing pains, but it also has the potential to evolve into an even more sophisticated and impactful partnership. We’ll be actively tracking and feeding into these debates over the next few years, particularly as GAVI begins fundraising for 2016-2020.

Data and transparency are en vogue: If I had a Swedish Krona for every time I heard “transparency” at the MTR, I could have bought myself three-fourths of a sandwich (Sweden is really expensive!).  GAVI was fresh off of being named the No. 2 most transparent aid program, and was rightfully proud of all they had done to become more open and accountable.  Part of their success was rooted in their effort to make their data more accessible—you can now track resources disbursed and how they were deployed at the country level on their website. This data matters—and not just for the ideological pursuit of transparency in and of itself—because it helps leaders make smarter decisions about how to target their health programs.  It also helps dispel assumptions that might not be correct.  President Mahama of Ghana, who co-chaired the MTR in person, discussed how (contrary to popular belief) Ghanaian health data shows that the majority of the country’s unimmunized children live in urban slums—not in rural districts.

So what’s next for ONE and GAVI?  Come 2014, we’ll be turning more of our attention and campaigning toward GAVI, just as we did back in 2011.  I came away from Stockholm feeling proud of the work ONE members and our partners have done to support GAVI, and energized for the tough work ahead.  GAVI will undoubtedly need new resources and strategic answers to many of the questions raised above.  But I feel confident that GAVI is up to the task, focused on delivering even more results for kids (in a transparent way, of course).