Building capacity—finding global health directions

Authors: Brian Nicholson 

Publication date:  03 дек 2005

There is a surprising lack of information for health professionals who want to work in the developing world. David Baguley and Brian Nicholson discuss the creation of Alma Mata, a new venture for people who want to work in global health

Global health today

Never before has the world needed such well informed advocates for global health. We live in a world interconnected through the exchange of people, ideas, information, material and financial resources. There is, however, a massive disparity in access to these commodities. Among these inequalities is the provision of health care.

Clear acknowledgement of the enormous challenges that exist within the field, and recognition that they need to be confronted, has driven the formation of a vast array of initiatives from the NGO (non-governmental organisations) and the governmental sectors. The United Nations' millennium development goals in particular exemplify this. In some parts of the world, however, particularly in the poorest countries, it is doubtful that these goals will be met. [1] As the poverty gap widens, disparities within global health continue to grow; in sub-Saharan Africa, child mortality rates have risen in 14 countries since 1990. [2] The million dollar question therefore remains how to convert this extensive enthusiastic rhetoric into a recognised reality.

Building capacity within the global health field

“Building capacity” and “capacity building” have become some of the most frequently used buzzwords within the international health sector. There is broad recognition that in order to improve global health, capacity needs to be built in every related field. [3] The terms have been a focus throughout the many different areas within the health sector. [4]-[6] Building capacity within global health is seen as a more sustainable strategy for improving health within the developing world. It essentially equates to the strengthening of particular areas of the health sector within developing countries in order to give them the ability to address their specific health needs. Strength may come from personnel redistribution, resource reallocation, and knowledge transfer internally, but to build the greatest capacity it is necessary to use some of the relevant external knowledge and expertise that already exists within the world's richer countries.

An important consideration for building capacity exists within the career development of health professionals already working in, or who wish to work in, the international health field. The role of an individual working as a health professional in a developed country and interested in the health needs of the world's poorest people cannot be underestimated. Looking at building capacity from a human resources perspective, it can be seen that in order to tackle today's global health challenges it is necessary to recruit a certain type of person. [7] The professional development of such a person therefore becomes of paramount importance in the bid to build capacity within the global health sector. Furthermore, it is also recognised that there is an inherent need, albeit a responsibility, for professional development assimilating an awareness of international health issues to begin at an undergraduate level. [8]

Additional justification—benefits to the UK health sector

Having UK health professionals spend part of their careers working abroad in developing countries is not necessarily a one-way exchange of expertise and skills. There are clear benefits for both sides—from the development of sustainable partnerships that tackle health inequalities, to the gaining of new perspectives and skills for life and work. [9] Developing health professionals' careers with experience in the global health field can make them function better within the NHS. The benefits that exist in terms of professional development for UK staff working abroad, particularly in developing countries, are well documented. [10]-[13]

Alma Mata—a new venture for health professionals

Despite the current wealth of information about global health issues, and the confirmation from the royal colleges and their faculties that overseas work can contribute greatly to professional development, the lack of advice on shaping your career with a view to working in this field is somewhat surprising. [1] This scarcity of information on career development that incorporates experience within the international health field has driven the creation of the Alma Mata Global Health Network. [2] Alma Mata is a new venture in global health, which aims to facilitate collaboration and communication between health professionals interested in working in global health.

Since the launch of its website in March 2005, Alma Mata has acted as a virtual community bringing together individuals and organisations in the field of international health to share ideas, knowledge, experience, and interests. Along with hosting a directory profiling individuals and organisations, Alma Mata stimulates the exchange of ideas and information through external events such as conferences and educational programmes, as well as keeping its members up to date online with the latest news and current affairs in the field of international health.

Alma Mata follows the principles detailed in statements such as the International Declaration of Human Rights that all people, irrespective of their country of birth, should have access to a basic level of health care. Through the activities detailed above, Alma Mata hopes to provide a valuable contribution towards reducing the gap, to the mutual benefit of everyone.

Participants (and their topic) confirmed for Global Health Directions conference

  • Treatment Action Campaign (From grassroots to global change: campaigning in international health)

  • Professor Rod Griffiths, President, UK Faculty of Public Health (Careers in global health)

  • Dr David McNamee, executive editor, Lancet (Better writing and getting published)

  • Professor Anne Chamberlain, Opt-In (NHS Links) (Getting started in global health research)

  • Professor John Yudkin, director of the International Health and Medical Education Centre (Global health education)

  • Médecins du Monde (Global Health Directions: experiences—the rewards and challenges of working in global health)

  • Dr Raul Pardinaz-Soliz and Jonny Gutteridge, Skillshare International (Identifying best practice in international health: challenging stereotypes of development)

  • Marion Birch, director of Medact, the charity working through research, advocacy and education to tackle international health problems (sharing her experiences of working as a nurse and midwife)

Global Health Directions

In collaboration with Leeds University Institute for Health Sciences and Public Health Research, Alma Mata is set to present Global Health Directions (further information box), which will bring together a number of active organisations within the international health field. Global Health Directions will be held at Leeds University on Saturday 3 December 2005, and will deliver plenary sessions and workshops on topics useful to those currently or prospectively working within the international health field. Participants confirmed so far are listed the box.

Global Health Directions targets members of all health and allied professions. It provides training and advice while sharing current thinking on global health education, careers, and working as an advocate for the global health community. The conference will be a unique opportunity to spend a structured day participating in a productive discourse involving individuals from the health sector and beyond who are interested in facing today's challenges within global health. ■

Further information


  1. Bennett S, Bhutta Z, Evans T, Haines A, Hyder A, Pang T, et al. Overcoming health-systems constraints to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. Lancet  2004;364: 900-6.
  2. World Health Organization. Global health: today's challenges. In: World health report 2003: shaping the future  . Geneva: World Health Organization, 2003: 10.
  3. Potter C, Brough R. Systemic capacity building: a hierarchy of needs. Health Pol Plann  2004;19: 336-45.
  4. Northridge M, Sidibe S, Goehl T. Environment and health: capacity building for the future. Environ Health Persp  2004;112: A858-60.
  5. Sumathipala A, Siribaddana S, Samaraweera S, Dayaratne D. Capacity building through multi-disciplinary research: a report from Sri Lanka. Br J Psych  2003;183: 457-8.
  6. Hawe P, Noort M, King L, Jordens C. Multiplying health gains: the critical role of capacity-building within health promotion programs. Health Pol  1997;39: 29-42.
  7. Wyss K. An approach to classifying human resources constraints to attaining health-related Millennium Development Goals. Hum Res Health  2004;2: 11.
  8. Bateman C, Baker T, Hoornenborg E, Ericsson U. Bringing global issues to medical teaching. Lancet  358: 1539-42.
  9. Wright J, Silverman M, Sloan J. NHS Links: a new approach to international health links. BMJ Careers  2005;330: 78-9. [Link]
  10. Abell C, Taylor S. The NHS benefits from doctors working abroad. BMJ  1995; 311: 133-4.
  11. Banatvala N, Macklow-Smith A. Bringing it back to Blighty. BMJ  1997;314: 2.
  12. Parry E, Parry V. Training for healthcare in developing countries: the work of the Tropical Health Education Trust. Med Educ  1998;32: 630-5.
  13. Burnard P, Claewplodtook P, Pathanapong P. Education and research links between the UK and Thailand. J Psychiatr Ment Health Nurs  2000;7: 463-5.

Brian Nicholson Alma Mata working group coordinator

Cite this as BMJ Careers ; doi: