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Rebalancing NGO Contributions to Public Health in Asia

Author: Yanzhong Huang, Senior Fellow for Global Health
Asia Pacific Bulletin No. 224
East-West Center

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Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that work on public health issues could potentially have a greater role in enhancing regional security throughout Asia than is currently acknowledged. One reason why public health NGOs are not living up to their potential is because their engagement accross the health field is so unbalanced. While the involvement of NGOs in public health projects is not new in Asia, the proliferation of public health NGOs and the increased recognition of the security implications of public health are two recent developments. The end of the Cold War along with the advent of globalization continues to highlight nontraditional security
challenges, including ones within the realm of public health. The bipolar superpower struggle has given way to a security agenda that now includes pandemic and other transnational public health concerns. The unfolding of the HIV/AIDS global crisis served as a catalyst for the competitive engagement among public health NGOs worldwide, which gained further momentum when the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution to address the global impact of the virus in January 2000.

In Asia, the capacity of NGOs to contribute to public health, both within individual countries and at the regional level, has steadily expanded. NGOs, both domestic and international, now play an important role in providing direct health services to needy populations in countries throughout Asia. Compared with government agencies, one distinct advantage for NGOs is their ability to reach and represent hard-to-reach, marginalized, vulnerable and underrepresented groups within states. For instance, according to a 2004 article in The Lancet, once effective AIDS treatment became available in the 1990s, community-based organizations and local public health NGOs became the backbone for AIDS treatment and support amongst rural populations of many developing states. One specific example of such an NGO in Asia is AIDS Care China, a Guangzhou-based group, which in 2010 was dispensing medication to 15,000 state registered AIDS patients—nearly 25 percent of the total registered AIDS patients receiving treatment in China at that time.

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