IFMSA - Passionate People Committed to Change By Kamil McClelland
It is only now, back in London but still on Mexico time, that I can finally reflect and absorb what a crazy, memorable, fantastic week IFMSA’s August Meeting has been.
Set in the historic city of Puebla, a couple of hours east of Mexico City, the second General Assembly of the year, but my first ever, was set to be a unique experience. How couldn’t it be? Bring together hundreds of medical students from around the world who are passionate about global health and you are going to have a great time!
But it wasn’t all fair weather; delving into the depths of this cumbersome organization and I realized that there are some more fundamental problems. In my blog post, I shall be recalling my frank experience of both the good and the bad to provide you with a true sense of what an IFMSA GA is all about!
Passionate People, Interesting Perspectives, Committed to Change
Without a doubt, the most heartening and enjoyable experience of the GA was the other people there. It is quite surreal to meet people your age from all across the world and share stories with them. It really makes you realize that, despite some cultural differences, we are all actually quite similar. I appreciate that most people there were well-off medical students, hardly representative of the global population, but nevertheless it was a fascinating experience. One of the most passionate groups of people I came across were some medical students from Brazil who had formed Colectivo Negrex, a medical student Black Power movement. I was in love, finally a group of people with true activist spirit fighting for change from structural discrimination against racial minorities.
There were also some thought-provoking perspectives at the GA that made me appreciate my privileged background and learn about some of the global health injustices around the world. As part of our 7-strong UK delegation, I was attending the SCOPH (Standing Committee on Public Health) sessions and so learnt from my colleagues about the public health problems that afflicted different countries. One of the most interesting was that of hepatitis in Egypt, not because I did not already know about this public health issue in the country, but because talking to Egyptian students made this problem a reality. I am involved in Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM), an organization that fights for access to medicines, and the case of the Hepatitis C drug Sofosbuvir is a classic: ludicrously overpriced by Gilead despite the overwhelming health need, particularly in places like Egypt where there is such a high burden of the disease. Talking to these Egyptian students about what it is like to work in hospitals where almost all the patients have Hepatitis C and learning about their advocacy efforts to raise awareness and fight it was one of my favourite experiences of the trip. They did not actually know about this issue with the pricing of the drug as a major barrier to treatment so I guess I was also an interesting perspective for them and hopefully informed their future efforts.
At times during my medical career, I have struggled to find like-minded students who are as committed to change and social justice as I am. Some may just see medicine as a job, whilst others are interested purely in the scientific side of medicine. Coming to the GA, it was so encouraging to meet that many people passionate about a cause and working to change the world for the better. At times, this spirit seemed a little directionless but when people found their niche, amazing things were happening.
How to move forward
As I have mentioned already, there were some hugely inspiring individuals making a difference at the local level with their activities. However, as an organization at the international level, its priority seems to be “capacity building”, this meaningless phrase I saw in every candidature. Undoubtedly, some of its trainings teach valuable skills, but for an organization of such a size, its impact is disappointing.
The organization is also drowning in bureaucracy. With only one paid employee, the vast majority of administrative work is done by the student leadership, despite their lack of time and expertise. This leads to mismanagement, a lack of executive function and overall a stagnant, lethargic beast of an organization.
Perhaps some of these are the realities of such a large organization. Perhaps some of these problems don’t actually exist and I have just misinterpreted what I saw. However, if they are indeed real, I fortunately don’t think they are impossible to solve. For example, adjusting the budget so that IFMSA can hire some more permanent staff (perhaps more fundraising would be needed) would hopefully allow proper financial management and oversight and also allow the students focus on the advocacy and training they do best.
If this were solved, IFMSA would be a pretty fantastic organization. Don’t get me wrong, this GA was an incredible, unforgettable experience. Working on an amendment to the mental health statement, drafting the Kaplan statement and attending sessions like creative activism that really changed my way of approaching local advocacy will be some highlights I will take away. I hope I will be able to attend another GA in the future so I can see whether this change has occurred and perhaps even help it move onto the right path.