“We are more powerful if we work together,” civil society speaks out at the 20th Conference of The Union Africa Region

The 20th Conference of The Union Africa Region in Ghana saw significant interaction and input from civil society campaigners.

A regional capacity-building workshop, held pre-conference, looked at the role of tuberculosis (TB) champions and how their personal survival stories can be used for advocacy purposes. The session also tackled the practical concerns that come with grant applications, funding strategies and engaging wider support.

Nomampondo (Noma) Barnabas, The Union’s Civil Society Liaison Officer, said that this kind of skills-sharing is vital. “We learned how to write grant applications – the kind that result in funds and therefore action. It is too easy to fill in a form without knowing the protocols – and be rejected. Projects succeed or break down on these issues.” 

She also urged conference organisers to look at the possibility of more pre-conference activities for civil society and advocacy officers: “It makes sense because the attendees take what they have learned straight into the conference, putting into practice everything they have learned from the off.”

“To tackle TB we need to listen closely to the people it affects,” said Blessina Kumar, who represents civil society interests on The Union’s Board of Directors.  This was evident in the inaugural ceremony where Naomi Wanjiru, healthcare worker and MDR-TB survivor, shared with delegates her experiences in Africa, that resulted in her contracting the disease while carrying out her duties.

“I had to inject myself with the drugs I desperately needed, because my colleagues were too frightened to administer to me. The role of healthcare workers is fundamental to TB care and prevention – but where is the protection for us?”

She added, “Without patients at the centre of the fight against TB, eradicating TB is just a dream.” Naomi lost her job in the profession but later returned to it. “I am a carer, I cannot turn this off.”

On 12 July, over 100 conference participants marched against TB in Accra. The ‘Every Breath Counts’ walk saw civil society, parliamentarians and scientists walking in solidarity against the toll of TB in the region.

Jane Carter, immediate Past-President of The Union, who participated in the walk said, “We were walking to raise awareness that the disease exists but also that it is ok to speak out, to be public about TB.”

There were also scheduled opportunities for campaigners to raise their issues. In the designated civil society space – Ekruase Pa (meaning ‘good village for the communities’) – there were debates between activists, parliamentarians and organisations working in the field. 

Daouda Adam, The Union’s Consultant on Tobacco Control (Africa) said, “For me, it is important that the impact of tobacco on TB - and vice versa - is more widely appreciated. Civil society is the motor that energises institutions to move the tobacco control agenda forward.  Through advocacy we can position health topics on the political and public agenda and ultimately change the course of health policies.”

Dr Suvanand Sahu, Deputy Executive Director, Stop TB Partnership, had funding advice for campaigners: “Shockingly, some governments – including in Africa – are returning money to The Global Fund unused. It is paramount that civil society campaigners advocate for this money for use on critical awareness raising work, to support community projects. Instead of money being pushed between different pots, let’s put it to use.”

President of The Union, Dr Jeremiah Chakaya Muhwa agreed, “Civil society should demand money from their governments to carry out the important work that their government cannot or will not take on. We cannot let health budgets shrink because TB budgets will shrink with them.”

As the conference in Ghana ended, Noma Barnabas remarked, “I think civil society really engaged in this conference and we were listened to.  But for us, we need to be smarter in how we organise ourselves, we need to be smarter at working together. Collaboration is important - TB working with HIV, not separately. We are more powerful and our voices are louder if we work together.”