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The power of partnerships

Helen Hamilton, October 2013
A community distributor holding a dose pole.

Our ambitious goals can only be achieved by empowering communities

Last month, Sightsavers hosted the NNN meeting in Brighton.

For those who don’t know, the NNN is the neglected tropical diseases non-governmental development organisations network. The name is a bit of a mouthful but its purpose is clear; to act as a global forum to share information and approaches on the prevention, control and elimination of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), including river blindness and blinding trachoma.

At this year’s NNN meeting a recurring theme during the week was collaboration and partnerships. As we focus on an NTD elimination agenda and all the opportunities it presents, strong partnerships and collaborative actions are critical to our success.

Recently we have seen NTDs recognised as a priority issue for both health and development.

In a new paradigm for NTDs, how do we maximise the value of these opportunities – and what is the role for us as non-governmental organisations (NGOs)? The message from the NNN meeting was clear: NGOs must be the catalyst behind innovative partnerships to deliver on our goals to eliminate NTDs.

It is collaboration and coordination that amplify the impact of all aspects of NTD elimination efforts from programme work to advocacy and funding. This makes the NNN an incredibly important forum for establishing partnerships, sharing lessons and developing strategies, and scaling up successful initiatives. As NGOs, we must work with partners to deliver high-quality, joined-up NTD programmes through national health systems, and promote government ownership of these programmes. At the meeting this week we heard about many partnerships that are doing just that.

One fantastic example of this approach is the Sightsavers-led Global Trachoma Mapping Project (GTMP), which is funded by the UK Department for International Development and brings together NGOs, researchers, private sector partnerships and country governments to deliver the largest-ever global disease mapping initiative.

The impact of the GTMP is huge; it started in late 2012 and by 2015 it will have reached a sample population of four million people and completed the mapping of trachoma in 1,238 districts across 30 countries. When you think that before this project it took 12 years to map just 1115 districts, the scale and speed of this partnership is immensely exciting.

Through this partnership, a new smartphone app has been developed that enables real-time electronic data capture, transfer and management of information on the prevalence of trachoma and the availability of water, sanitation and hygiene facilities. The GTMP household survey includes questions on access and distance to water sources for face washing as well as questions on sanitation access. These questions make the most of the huge potential of the GTMP to build a clearer picture of the water, sanitation and hygiene situation in trachoma-endemic areas.

This means that we are delivering high quality data to provide the evidence base for targeted interventions that are vital if we are to reach communities at risk and eliminate trachoma by 2020.

As NGOs, communities are at the centre of everything that we do, and our ambitious goals can only be achieved by empowering communities. The close relationships we have developed with thousands of communities have enabled highly successful volunteer networks to deliver community-directed approaches to tackling NTDs. In partnership with communities, we have been among the major innovators in mass drug administration, delivering millions of treatments each year.

Over the last few years, we have seen the profile of NTDs rise – the NNN meeting recognised that building partnerships to support our elimination goals has been a huge achievement – but this work must continue as there is still much to do. If we are to keep NTDs on the wider development agenda we must strengthen our existing partnerships and challenge ourselves to reach out and develop new ones based on a shared focus on equity and inclusion. We must work with the poorest communities to deliver real and lasting change.

By Helen Hamilton, Policy Advisor on Neglected Tropical Diseases at Sightsavers

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