Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Statement on Respect and Values of IFMSA

"Dear 61st General Assembly of IFMSA August Meeting,

The past few days have been an exhibition of triumph, despair, joy, grief and friendship. As we pack our bags tonight or tomorrow morning, say our final goodbyes, exchange hugs, share tears and enjoy final laughs together, many may still have unanswered questions in their minds. What happened at this GA, August Meeting 2012, the Indian Experience? We may perhaps be reminded of Charles Dickens in The Tale of Two Cities :
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

The course of events may never be fully understood and like holding a prism up to the light, views from different angles can only give different colours. Perhaps as we begin to step outside of the current environment, it may be pertinent to share some present reflections to bring us a degree closer to any sense of completion.

Firstly, IFMSA is an independent Federation of medical students’ associations, ending this meeting with 107 countries, 114 national member organisations and over 1.2 million medical students involved worldwide. It is our belief that as a Federation, we should value this diversity, and respect that each national member organisation has equal rights of expression and that silence can not necessarily be viewed as agreement. Different cultures with different backgrounds function in different ways, all are equally appropriate and valid. Differences and multitudes of opinion should be lauded and respected in a free democratic society. Every effort should be made to engage with all NMOs regardless of real or perceived cultural, religious, political and language barriers.

We have all travelled from afar, some have paid their own way through savings and entrepreneurship, others supported through sponsorship and NMOs. All traveled with some hopes and expectation that comes with an IFMSA General Assembly - meeting like-minded, passionate students from around the world, learning new cultures and breaking down geopolitical stereotypes that plague our "adult" world. It is often talked about, what is the magic of IFMSA that brings Israelis and Palestinians together at our 2006 General Assembly to denounce the violence of the second intifada in the Gaza strip, or that Taiwanese and Chinese may share the same aspirations for their Asia Pacific region and that countries that may usually in the "adult" worldview take a parochial approach to working with low and middle income countries, in IFMSA instead, work side-by-side, with humble patience and a grateful attitude to be able exchange ideas in broken English and learn from each other.

In the eyes of some, this GA has perhaps dented the IFMSA armour guarding these ideals and let seep in the neo-colonial and current geo-political attitude that dominate our world relations. It is not with blind optimism, but through genuine hope and aspiration that we believe as future leaders of health we can be a different generation striving towards true equity for all. These paradigms wherein a few select countries privileged with resources and institutional power have overly representative influence over the state of play are a key “cause of the causes” that perpetuate the current global health inequalities. The “White Saviour Syndrome”, riding into the deserts of a foreign country on a stallion with all the ideas, innovations and answers is neither respectful nor actually helpful. For a stallion is no more a suitable breed for long journeys across the desert, than is a camel. In such situations it is only appropriate to seek local advice and expertise to adequately navigate an unknown terrain.

This should have become everyone’s GA, in more ways than most GAs, given the Federation’s financial contribution. But are we accurately promoting the principles of our Federation, the true humanitarian ideals and creating responsible future physicians, if we are in submission to the neo-colonial attitude as previously described? Are the events that played out at this GA, truly reflective of our mission that we have developed cultural sensitivity? Are we really intent on influencing transnational inequalities in the way of reducing them and not merely maintaining status quo?

In times of crisis as we have witnessed here, and let us make no mistake, we were and in some respects still are, in a time of crisis, it is imperative to involve as many key stakeholders as possible with as much information as possible. Only through this can informed decisions be made and lessons learned from mistakes made, to prevent them from happening in the future. NMOs presidents should have equal access to all available information, during the GAs and the periods in between GAs. As a Federation that respects the autonomy of its members, NMO Presidents should be able to seek advice from external professional bodies if they feel that there is a perceived threat to their delegates and not be reprimanded for prioritising the wellbeing of their delegates, as it is indeed their responsibility!

When in a situation of threat, whether perceived or otherwise, and our Federation’s leaders are neither prepared to fight nor flight, it gives us serious concerns that they will be sitting prey for opportunistic captors. As in Desmond Tutu’s eloquent words:

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

We cannot help to not be neutral in our condemnation of the events that occurred as we believe that absolute transparency and more robust processes should have taken place. There are no shades to transparency, just as tinted glass is no longer clear glass, transparency is binary - either it exists in full or not at all.

Each NMO, regardless of perceived status, must be given the full opportunity and feel empowered in exercising their full rights of expression. We must also not belittle our own contributions to the debates and have courage to be the sharp chisel that sculpts the Federation we want to be part of. Let us not forget history where small countries have stood against super powers to declare nuclear free states, advocated for transparent investigations in the face of genocide and amongst the first in the world to promote women’s suffrage - the right to vote.

Let us take some benefit from our past actions, not try to forget them and move forward as if nothing has happened. Our Federation is a special and unique one, thanks to its multicultural dynamics, individual autonomy and collective responsibility. Let’s keep it that way! One GA out of many shouldn’t soil our beloved organisation but may be used as fertiliser to make us stronger - TOGETHER."

Co-signed by: 

IFMSA-Czech Republic
AMSA-Hong Kong
NZMSA-New Zealand
Elias Jesus Ortega Chahla from IFMSA-Argentina
Ashley Wills from IFMSA-The Netherlands

( Relevant constitution points

"3.1 The Federation pursues its aims without political, religious, social, racial, national, sexual or any other discrimination.

3.2 The Federation promotes humanitarian ideals among medical students and so seeks to contribute to the creation of responsible future physicians.

3.3 The Federation respects the autonomy of its members." )

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