There is a saying that “When you want it done, put it in the hands of the young ones.” The power of enthusiastic and empowered young people was reinforced in me recently at the NextGen Leaders for NCDs East Africa workshop.
Organised by the Young Professionals Chronic Disease Network (YP-CDN), in partnership with other stakeholders including RTI International, 50 young professionals and students attended from 8 different countries.
Throughout the workshop I gazed around the room full of young people in their 20s and I could sense both their energy and passion for this work and ready to bring about change in their respective countries.
As I spoke with participants, I could not help to reflect that in the same month, the Rwanda Children’s Cancer Relief (RCCR), a youth led organisation was carrying out a month-long childhood cancer awareness campaign back home in Rwanda.
The campaign both driven and designed by youth successfully lobbied the NCD division in the Ministry of Health to formally declared September National Childhood Cancer Awareness month.
As the founder of the RCCR, I shared this success story with some of my peers who attended NextGen and assured that as long as the youths are empowered, they will push the NCDs agenda in their local national plans.
Agents for SDGs agenda
NextGen Leaders spent time reflecting on how to get involved in the transition from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The SDGs differ because, for the first time, (through advocacy), NCDs have been incorporated into these goals. Each country was asked to incorporate SDGs in their national development plans.
It will be a challenging task and some countries have already demonstrated political will, however, others are still lagging behind in including the necessary NCD targets, due to other competing agendas.
If governments are not monitored, reminded, and held accountable to their agreed targets, especially by the local citizens, the SDGs, and especially NCD targets, will remain just targets on paper.
As civil society representatives, YP-CDN Chapters (led by the NextGen Leaders at the workshop) were reminded that their role is to use every available resources to push for action and implementation of the NCD targets mentioned in the SDGs.
In most countries, especially across Africa, youths comprise the biggest percentage of the population. In their lifetime, these young people will not be spared from experiencing NCDs themselves, either directly or via their parents and relatives.
Hence, their involvement in the NCDs control is paramount. Youth involved in advocacy campaigns are full of energy, determination, and passion, but often times, they lack experience to ignite the change needed.
Platforms like the NextGen Leaders workshop provide a way for young people to learn from seasoned advocates, to understand the technical and strategic factors behind effective advocacy campaigns, and avoid past mistakes.
Young professionals in East Africa are already engaged in efforts to combat NCDs, they are leading different campaigns and projects to raise awareness for NCDs, such as screening and early detection campaigns and advocating for availability of essential drugs for NCDs.
In most cases these efforts are individualiased within each country where you find advocates do not know each other. Forums like NextGen Leaders workshop bring together these advocates to find solutions, not only for their respective countries, but collectively for the region.
Lessons learned and way forward
Lesson 1: Patients must take centre stage in the advocacy
During the workshop patients and survivors shared their stories and experiences. Patients shared their frustrations where they are told less about their diseases and shared their understanding of advocacy and how they can be involved.
I learned that not only do we have to advocate for these patients directly, but also for policy changes that affect health care professionals in order to facilitate the best possible care for patients.
Lesson 2: We can do better together
During the workshop, participants from different countries sat together to tackle an NCD issue in one country. The ownership of the issue by a collective group from different countries gave me hope that we can do better together.
When various advocacy groups from different countries work on the same NCDs advocacy issue, our voice will be stronger and our work together will allow things to change for the region.
Lesson 3: We need to be creative in our advocacy campaigns
The NextGen Workshop proved that it’s possible to bring the next generation together have fun and get things done at the same time.
The workshop was conducted in a non-traditional way, where hands-on activities were the rule (rather than long lectures), yoga sessions helped us focus and re-energize, among other ways of making it fun and engaging.
This made me think of the way we portray our advocacy messages: we need creativity and innovation in what we do to really get our message across to different groups and audiences.
The YP-CDN Rwanda Chapter hopes to host another event like this in Kigali! With more and regular NextGen Leaders’ workshops and collective planning, there is no doubt that the broad diversity of patient and advocate voices for NCDs will become louder and that our actions, collectively across borders, will be felt for many more generations to come.
The writer is an oncologist by training and Founder & Board Chair, Rwanda Children’s Cancer Relief