Joshua Blumenfeld (left) and Jamie Drummond at Sunday’s NCD communications event moderated by Nejra Cehic. (Image: Brian W. Simpson)

NCD Experts, Change the Name! And Other Valuable Advice

Experts who want to move the needle on noncommunicable diseases have a few challenges. First among these is explaining the awkward umbrella term for a slew of diseases ranging from cancer and cardiovascular disease to diabetes and Alzheimer’s.  

To provide some outside-the-umbrella thinking, ONE cofounder Jamie Drummond and Malaria No More managing director Joshua Blumenfeld shared some advice with the NCD crowd at a #WHA72 side event on Sunday.

Drummond brought some serious bona fides. Example: He launched a successful campaign in the late 1990s to persuade wealthy countries to cancel more than $110 billion in debt owed by poor countries. (And he later cofounded ONE.)

The goal for Drummond, Blumenthal and AFP science correspondent Marlowe Hood was to provide communications advice to the NCD community. The event was hosted by Bloomberg Philanthropies. Michael R. Bloomberg is a WHO Global Ambassador for Global Ambassador for Noncommunicable Diseases and Injuries. (He’s also a benefactor of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, which publishes GHN.)

Here are 8 top pieces of advice.

8. Find and use “collective action forcing moments.” Drummond made use of the year 2000 to push wealthy countries to commit to debt cancellation. “You have to dramatize that moment and squeeze the hell out of them,” Drummond advised. 

7. Use celebrities: it takes perseverance and finding the people who know people, but celebrities can be powerful allies in advocacy. “They are multinational brands. Some of them are international corporations, themselves,” said Drummond. “They have become much more sophisticated. What they can lend in strategy to an issue is much more than 15-20 years ago.” He emphasized that celebrities in developing countries can be important partners, but they haven’t been pursued enough. 

6. Go big. The Millennium Development Goals (precursors to today’s SDGs) seemed impossible when they were drafted—and indeed, many were—but they set a dramatic, ambitious agenda that drove progress. “If you tell [a celebrity or policymaker], you are going to do something enormous on cancer or HIV, the bigness of the aspiration is appealing,” said Blumenthal.  

5. Get a better name. “NCDs. You need to get rid of that. I think that’s absolutely plain. In the future, a sociologist will do a study to see what your problem is,” said Drummond. “High-minded intelligent people come up with the worst acronyms imaginable, and they get hurt when nobody gives a shit.” 

(In an aside, Drummond recalled talking with his friend, musician and activist Bob Geldof, on forming the Coalition for Responsible Acronym Production. (Think on it.))

4. Get a reporting system. An annual report that tracks progress is essential. Given that NCDs will have an estimated $47 trillion in costs by 2030, Drummond said it’s incomprehensible that there isn’t an annual report tracking NCDs. 

Blumenthal added that a malaria score card that grades countries on malaria indicators and is revealed annually at the African Union before 50 heads of state has become invaluable. “It created celebratory moments and some embarrassing moments,” he said. Putting up the board with grades on it every year is “enormously powerful,” Blumenthal said. 

3. Make it easy for policymakers. “Speak to them on their terms. Give them ready-made solutions. You have to be their partners in helping them,” said Blumenthal.

2. Play the inside and outside game. While Drummond argued for boycotts and die-ins at food manufacturers, Blumenthal advocated finding champions on the inside. A 2006 White House summit helped launch Malaria No More. Without presidents Bush and Obama’s support, the organization’s successes would never have happened, he said. 

1. Invest in advocacy and communications. “Find people who know what they are doing,  who can reach out to journalists and can write a good press release,” Hood, the AFP reporter, said. “I get 500 to 600 emails a day on a ridiculously broad array of topics, and I am embarrassed to say how much time I spend on deciding what to follow up on.”

The way forward may still be opaque, but Drummond gave attendees some solace. “I’m an optimist,” he said. “Whenever I see a well-organized campaign implemented, I’ve seen change occur so I know it is possible.” 


Get the latest news from #WHA72 here.

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Joshua Blumenfeld (left) and Jamie Drummond at Sunday’s NCD communications event moderated by Nejra Cehic. (Image: Brian W. Simpson)