Mock WHO conference puts students in real health care roles

For a weekend, 124 college students shed the comfortable robes of academia and took up the globe’s greatest health threats, from swollen refugee camps to the Ebola virus.

Just for pretend.

The campus of UNC-Chapel Hill hosted the nation’s first American Mock World Health Organization conference Saturday, inviting students to play the role of the United Nations’ public health arm.

The event, which continues Sunday, drew service-minded students from as far as Minnesota and Massachusetts, acting as delegates from Tanzania or Fiji, Botswana or China, as though they had gathered for the annual World Health Assembly in Geneva.

“We have someone who flew in from France,” said Mia Lei, a UNC junior studying health policy and management.

The goal of the AMWHO, said organizer and UNC senior Neha Acharya, is to educate students about world health affairs with an active learning tool. It’s one thing to talk about the lack of access to trained nurses in West Africa and another to draft a plan that addresses that lack.

The theme of the conference: Health in Times of Conflict.

On Saturday, students split into five regional blocs: Africa, the Americas, Europe, Eastern Mediterranean and West Pacific/Southeast Asia. For the duration of the day, they negotiated the scope and wording of resolutions they will vote on Sunday.

Procedural lessons

As they negotiated, they followed strict rules of order, addressing the moderators as “the honorable chair” and themselves as “the delegate from Algeria” or “the representative from Mozambique.” Before a discussion could begin, a motion must pass on the duration of time allowed each speaker.

As the sky blue-clad crowds poured into Kenan Stadium for UNC’s football game against Virginia Tech on Saturday morning, these students caucused in suits and dresses, earnest and sincere.

“The representative from Mozambique makes a motion to pause the moderated caucus to re-evaluate our agenda topic,” said one of them.

“Thank you, delegate,” said Lei. “Very eloquently spoken.”

Students researched their countries in advance and wrote position papers on each of the countries’ health needs, ammunition for their discussions.

“Israel and Palestine are already going at it,” Lei said.

Institutional experience

Students saw quickly that a real global health conference runs heavy on procedure as much as policy, with motions alternating between moderated discussion, unmoderated discussions and requests for time extensions. The AMWHO participants got a feel, as much as anything, for how a large institution works.

The first hour of the African bloc saw competing motions from Algeria and Mali, to focus on refugees or the logistics of Ebola outreach. Before they settled on a resolution to fit Health in Times of Conflict, they tried to nail down the definition of conflict itself – heady stuff for a Saturday morning.

And as the delegate from Fiji noted, even if the AMWHO’s resolutions were real, they could only strongly recommend them to countries rather than make them mandatory.

“We learn all this theory,” Lei said, “but it doesn’t get put to use.”