Russia and Global Health – In need, or in the lead?

When I talk publicly about Russia’s role as an international development donor, I am usually greeted with raised eyebrows of surprise. From those of a certain ideological bent, I get a scholarly equivalent of rolled eyes as they dismissively express suspicion over Russia’s strategic motives in providing aid (as if no other international aid donor shares similar motives).

But the greatest surprise and incredulity comes when I say that Russia is aspiring to be a leader in global health. “Oh come one,” goes the typical response, “Given the state of Russia’s own health care, how could it possibly become a leader in global health issues?” The assumption is that, in the realm of health care, Russia remains in need of development assistance itself.

However, it should be obvious: In order to improve its own health care outcomes, Russia has developed quite some expertise in addressing health care issues in a “developing country” context. It is taking that expertise and applying it outside Russia, especially in Central Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Particularly in Central Asia, Russia’s health care expertise is arguably more appropriate and effective than that of the more commonly recognized leaders in global health initiatives, since the health care infrastructure there bears the marks of the Soviet past it shares with Russia. Generations of Russian and Central Asian medical personnel share a consciousness of having been co-citizens of the same country, the Soviet Union, not to mention sharing a common language, Russian.

Although most of Russia’s activity in global health issues is quite recent, some significant precedents were set early in the 20th century, such as Soviet collaboration with the WHO to eradicate smallpox in the 1970s. More recently, Russia took the lead in organizing an international forum on the challenges of meeting MGD6, the Millennium Development Goal that targets HIV/AIDS, Malaria, TB, and other diseases.

Russia also hosted the First Global Ministerial Conference on Healthy Lifestyles and Non-Communicable Disease (NCD) Control in April 2011. Then-Prime Minister of Russia Vladimir Putin made a dramatic appearance at the event and spoke forcefully in favor of prioritizing support for health care. Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, attended the Moscow conference, and his brief report on it is worth quoting:

“One of the most optimistic conclusions I took from this meeting of ministers was that Russia has launched itself into global health. Is it too hopeful to believe that Russia sees health as a sphere where it can demonstrate its positive contribution to global affairs? Vladimir Putin committed Russia to ‘enhance cooperation’ with WHO … Putin’s extended hand for health should be grasped.”

Of course there is room to criticize Russia’s activities in the realm of global public health – the point is not to pretend that Russia is perfectly praiseworthy. The point is to put the lie to uninformed or ideologically driven dismissals of Russia’s role.

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