I am currently in Kuala Lumpur where I have been fortunate enough to be one of the delegates attending the inspiring, and at times overwhelming, Women Deliver 2013 conference. Although this is much more of an advocacy conference than a research conference (in fact yesterday someone explained that it was not a conference, but rather a movement) I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about what is going on outside of the ivory towers in the maternal, women’s and reproductive health worlds. It has been a great place for thinking up new research questions and trying to understand where my work might fit into this space. Plus, it is one of the only places I have been where I, a lowly academic, have had the chance to mingle with Princesses – real ones.

The main reason I am here, however, was to present the findings from a new report that I co-authored with Jeni Klugman, the Director of Gender and Development, at the World Bank. In it, we attempted to summarize the evidence on what is know about the economics maternal health in developing countries. It is a thin literature, a bit surprising given how important this issue is, but we believe that we have found enough evidence to support the case that addressing maternal health is a missed opportunity for development, and proven approaches to address this issue. We have also made this point a few weeks back in a commentary in the Lancet.

It has been amazing to be here and to be among so many people (I heard there were 5000 delegates) who are so passionate about improving the lives of billions of women around the world. On my way here I met a young woman from Chicago who had only read about the conference a week ago and like that, decided to hop on a plane to be here. It feels a lot like what the AIDS movement was like in the early 2000s. I am curious if, and how, the energy that here this week can be channeled and sustained in the years to come.

Why Malaysia? Well, Malaysia has been one of the developing countries with the most successful track records at reducing maternal mortality. Plus, given that innovation seems to be the big buzz word here – what new approaches and new ideas can be implemented to address the needs of women – Kuala Lumpur has been a perfect backdrop for such a conversations with its frenetic shopping malls, skyscrapers, and exciting urban spaces.

My only complaint is what appears to be a complete lack of emphasis on research and evidence. I am one of the few academics here. I asked almost everyone I met this week the same question: how often do you read research and to what extent do you use this to inform your work? Almost uniformly the answer has been – not at all. Yesterday I attended a panel where every panelist presented an overview of their work where they were trying out nearly identical “new approaches”. Sadly, this conference has also convinced me that there is too little research underway to test the many innovative approaches underway around the world. Perhaps that is the real missed opportunity for maternal health.

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2 Responses to “A dispatch from Women Deliver 2013”

  1. Nandini Oomman says:

    Well said, Karen! I watched some videos of plenaries as well as other sessions and felt that I was hearing exactly the same things I heard in the 90s in the Women’s Health Movement. The only difference is that there are more connections to Development, as it were, but nothing stood out for me as solutions to the problems we have talked about for decades. As for research, even if this wasn’t an academic conference, it should have drawn heavily on available evidence to demonstrate proven interventions and debate new ones. I was disappointed by the quality of discussions.

    Congrats on your report! Your conclusions, even if based on a thin body of evidence, can be translated to actions by the global development community–most of all the point about data! It was astounding to me that other than your session, I didn’t hear much about the lack of data to really understand true progress on the MDGs, mostly MDG5.

  2. catherine bateman-steel says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful piece Karen. As an academic who was also at Women Deliver I can relate to much of what you write. The conference certainly was inspiring and overwhelming in equal measure, and I also found myself at times wondering how to make my role as an academic relevant in the midst of this huge dynamic movement. In some sessions I also heard people reflect on the negative role of researchers generating knowledge for their own reasons rather than for the benefit of the communities they work with. This highlighted the disconnect that I am well aware can exist between research and advocacy. I do think that we need to find ways for these worlds to become closer intertwined and that it is for both sides to look for solutions. As academics I think there is an onus on us to produce work that is embedded in policy and practice processes and to make our work and language accessible. I did also find myself reflecting on the fact that the very valuable MHTF conference was only open to those that were presenting work. I understand the value from an academic perspective but in terms of research reaching a wider audience is this a missed opportunity? or should these spaces be protected and other ways found to be accessible?

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