In an article published in June in the British Medical Journal, Ilona Kickbusch explained how foreign policy and health interact in four main ways: one, negatively, when diplomatic tensions arise or when economic and commercial concerns become priorities; two, strategically, when health diplomacy is used as a tool to reach other goals; three, in an integrative way, when health is considered as an essential part of foreign policy; and, four, for the benefit of health, when foreign policy supports health goals.
These insights are relevant to any state that seeks to develop health diplomacy with the goal of expanding traditional foreign-policy strategies to support the improvement of global health. One such state is Taiwan.
Taiwan was among the first states in Asia to engage in medical diplomacy when in 1962 it sent health professionals to Libya and Saudi Arabia. Since then, Taiwan has developed a sophisticated model of health diplomacy.
The Taiwanese government, in cooperation with universities and hospitals, as well as local and international non-governmental organizations, has sent medical and humanitarian missions to developing countries, such as Malawi, Swaziland, and Sao Tome and Principe, to support their efforts to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, dengue fever and neglected diseases, to improve food safety, and to strengthen primary healthcare as a contribution to achieving the UN’s Millennium Development Goals.
In addition, Taiwan has supported the Global Fund, initiated health projects under APEC, joined international consortiums for health and medical research funded by the European Commission, and sent delegations to attend conferences and workshops organized by the WHO and other UN agencies, when these institutions agreed to invite Taiwanese professionals.
Taiwan has become more deeply involved in global health. However, there are still numerous opportunities for Taiwan to make its foreign policy more productive for global health.
First, Taiwanese public health experts can work more closely with diplomats to achieve global health goals. Taiwan was a pioneer in promoting cooperation between diplomats and health professionals, with the establishment in 2006 of the platform Taiwan International Health Action (Taiwan IHA) which engaged the Department of Health, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and civil societies “to cooperate on issues of international health” as a “partner for global health.” Taiwan IHA offers a model that can be emulated. Strangely, however, if the Web site of this platform is anything to go by, Taiwan IHA seems to have been very quiet in the last two years, when it should have been more productive, especially after the nation was admitted as an observer to the WHA in 2009.
Second, the need for strong international health departments within the ministries of health, proposed by Kickbusch, also applies to Taiwan. It would be beneficial for the health department to invite local and foreign health advisers with backgrounds in health diplomacy or research in global health to keep it updated on developments in global health governance and to make Taiwan’s health development even more beneficial for global health in accordance with the Paris Declaration on aid effectiveness (2005).
Lastly, Taiwan would benefit from a national strategy for global health. This would create a vision and outline a set of principles, goals and actions for Taiwan to focus on to improve global health. It will also reinforce government policy and help identify ways to work even more effectively with partners to deliver better health outcome.