This week on PLOS Translation Global Health, we hear from NCDFREE’s Jack and Juliette on the recent inaugural Global NCD Alliance Forum and youth leadership on Noncommunicable Diseases.

From November 13-15 a delegation of over 200 health and advocacy professionals assembled in Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates, for what was to be the first-ever global meeting of national and regional NCD Alliances and supporting groups: The Global NCD Alliance Forum.

The central themes of the Forum were introduced by Jose Luis Castro, Chair of the NCD Alliance and Executive Director of the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease. These formed three key pillars that would shape the keynote addresses, plenary sessions and workshops, held throughout the weekend. The first was accountability: translating global commitments to national and regional action. Second was organisational development: ensuring national and regional alliances are well-equipped to drive change. While the third focused on collaboration for success: twinning between alliances and partnerships across other stakeholders to maximize impact.

As the new Global Coordinators for NCDFREE and in the context of now almost 5 years since the High-Level Meeting in New York, we were heartened to see tangible directives visible in the formal Sharjah Civil Society Declaration, signed at the closing of the Forum, underscoring the prioritization of the NCD alliance’s future efforts of NCD action and advocacy.

Of course, the elephant in the room is that an enormous, multisectorial approach is required to reverse the tide of these complex conditions. This must include global bodies such as the World Health Organization, regional alliances, governmental organisations, the private sector and civil society. Galvanizing these forces behind a shared vision is the task at hand. While the risk of failure is real, the reward for success would be a substantially positive outcome for equity, justice and health.

We know that non-communicable disease burden can compound issues of poverty and social justice, particularly in low-and-middle income countries (LMIC’s). We also know, addressing this balance is crucial to the sustainable development of our human and planetary health and meeting the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly target 3.4: “By 2030 reduce by one-third pre-mature mortality from non-communicable diseases (NCDs) through prevention and treatment, and promote mental health and wellbeing.”

Cohesive strategy planning is essential in environments where resources can be limited. It is also necessary for the successful identification of policy and advocacy gatekeepers, who can assist in the often difficult process of stakeholder relations and diplomacy that can be a bureaucratic process, fraught with challenges in Health. This can enable us to identify and connect with “those who hold the appointment book”- rather than assuming “those who have the title” are the final-word in decision making.

Sometimes this will involve twinning initiatives between South-South or North-South Alliances. Such collaborations can pool knowledge, resources and contacts – an advantage if we wish to start identifying a global network of policy gatekeepers and advocates, who can drive the actions necessary for meaningful change. At other times, this may involve private/public partnerships.

In NCD advocacy, there has at times been hesitance to involve the private sector, under the assumption that the competing priorities of Health and Industry cannot be reconciled. This notion was challenged by Dr Darin Stibbe, from The Partnering Initiative, who invited Forum attendees to think outside the box when looking for partners, citing the scale and complexity of NCD action required to meet the goals of 2030, will make multisectorial partnerships a necessity. He implored attendees not to avoid Industry, as its thirst for continuous innovation and improvement could be of powerful benefit to the Health and Advocacy landscape. He instead suggested we look at partnerships based on their capacity to meet three criteria: an alignment (or at the very least) overlap of interests, mutual willingness to commit resources and the potential for mutual net value gain.

It can be tempting with an unprecedented event such as this, to rest on the laurels of newness. An event that has never happened before, might be notable simply for being achieved. While it was important to see so many people working towards reducing NCD related morbidity and mortality in one room – it was even more heartening to hear the NCDA leads explicitly declaring an appetite to ensure this unity results in concrete actions, for which we can all be made accountable. The Sharjah Declaration outlines this commitment with 5 areas for action and 32 steps towards them, that may evolve to having associated measurable targets attached. It was signed by the delegation at the Forum’s close, but was not the only notable example of the spirit of collaboration the Forum fostered.

Cross-collaboration and knowledge sharing was a key focus of the forum. The World Health Organization openly took suggestions on how to measure country-specific CSO involvement more adequately, in their official global NCD monitoring metrics. Many national and regional alliances sought advice and materials from initiators of successful campaigns presented in workshops, and established leaders commented on their desire to include a greater amount of youth and patient advocates in their decision-making processes. After official programs finished, many attendees networked in associated Forum venues long into the evenings. It is a huge compliment to the NCDA Forum organizing committee, that this energy and curiosity was maintained through all 3 days of proceedings.

It was our own personal pleasure to contribute to this spirit of unity, by working with other young delegates to author and initiate our own Youth endorsement of the Declaration, which will be published in official communique after the Forum. In it, 16 young leaders working towards reducing the global burden of non-communicable disease committed to “chart a new course toward an equitable, sustainable, and healthy future.” It was exciting to be amongst the first organisation’s specifically linking young people to NCD advocacy to sign, but we are even more excited by the belief that we will not be the last.

So, where to now in the journey towards a brighter future for NCD Action and Advocacy?
We know we must explore new ways to partner and be bold enough to seek resources from unusual sources. We know we must also be savvy enough to ensure the partnerships we do enter have aligned interests and a mutual chance to benefit from collaborating. We must be idealistic enough to dream large, but disciplined enough to consistently measure the small bites we take to devour the larger animal. We must listen to our young leaders and empower those with lived experience to advocate also.

Most fundamental in all of this, is that we must never stop communicating. The NCD space is even larger than the 200 delegates present at the Forum, yet the connection of just these 200 minds has invigorated our field. In three short days, new collaborations and campaign strategies to better address noncommunicable disease across alliances, nations and regions were formed. Just imagine the dynamic work we could do, if knowledge and resource sharing wasn’t considered an innovation, but standard-practice. We really could solve this crisis in our lifetime, and that is worth every ounce of our efforts.