If you want to go fast, go alone.  If you want to go far, go together.  – African proverb

I am sometimes asked which of my past experiences has helped me most in my current work at North Star. I’m not quick enough to give my best answer on the spot, so I usually mumble something about years working on public-private partnerships. Afterwards though it comes to me: Memory!

No not memory the noun, Memory the game! You know, the one where you take all the cards and line them up face down, and then turn them over two at a time and try to make matching pairs?

North Star works with more than sixty different partners to provide health care at 21 roadside health clinics in nine countries. This year we’ll double that number of clinics and probably add just as many new partners, all of which contribute in different ways (cash, in-kind); at different levels (local, national, regional, international) and with different motivations (occupational health, personal health, public health).

Our partners are bound together by a common goal: to stop the spread of disease by reducing risk and improving health care for people on the move. But it turns out that a shared goal doesn’t translate into shared needs. Meeting and matching all those different needs makes up a lot of what we do here at North Star. We’re constantly turning over new opportunities and then trying to match them with others that we’ve already uncovered.

Is all the match-making worth it? Aren’t all the meetings a drain on energy and resources? Don’t the compromises affect the quality of service? Wouldn’t it be easier just to do it “our way, everyday?”

The answer to all these questions is “yes”… in the short run. It is quicker, easier and cheaper to set up roadside health clinic alone. (Trust me: we’ve tried it!) But without the support of partners – public and private –  it is much more expensive and difficult to sustain it, and the overall impact is reduced. (Trust me again: we’ve learned this one the hard way!)

Our experiences over the last four years have reaffirmed for me what wiser people discovered long ago: health is a collective endeavour. No single group or organization can deliver “it” on their own. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes almost the entire world to keep them healthy. Think about it: from too much stress at work to the Mexican flu, illness stems from many sources. Equally, the scan at the airport that stopped SARS from reaching your community, and the malaria medicine grown in China prevent and treat sickness. It takes  companies, communities and countries to provide a full continuum of care and well-being. Like the environment, health is an undeniable tribute to the adagium: we’re all in it together folks.

So if we’re all in it together, why aren’t we all spending more time talking to each other and trying to match our competences and discover new synergies? The most common answer is that “it’s too difficult”. Nonsense! You probably learnt the most important skills as a child. Game of Memory anyone?

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Photography | David Childley, Gideon Mendel