Transformational leadership: Investing in Africa’s youth for better Universal Health Coverage outcomes

Leadership is the art of leading others to deliberately create a result that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. – Unknown

Leadership is about influence, not authority. Transformational Leadership has been quite the buzz word in 21st Century. Great transformational leaders lead through inspiration, persuasion and personal connections, spurring group members to work to their highest potential. Leadership is about organizing a group of people to achieve a common goal. The leader may or may not have any formal authority. Africa’s youth are called upon to be those transformational leaders as they steer the ship for better Universal Health Coverage (UHC) outcomes.

To demystify transformational leadership and what it means for youth and UHC, the Youth4UHC movement hosted an interactive session held on 13th November 2019 at the International Conference on Population and Development. Tastefully titled the red couch to amplify its full meaning, the movement engaged Dr. Githinji Gitahi (GCEO of Amref Health Africa), Ms. Kate Hampton (CEO of the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation), Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (board chair for the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization-GAVI, and only female African board member for Twitter), Dr. Alando Terrelonge (Jamaica’s Minister of Education, Youth, and Information), Dr. Cyrus Matheka (Makueni County’s Head of Health Promotions), Dr. Magnifique Irakoze (vice president of African Youth Advocacy Network –AfriYAN, Rwanda) and Ms. Dorine Nininahazwe (ONE Campaign’s AU and East Africa Director) to interrogate what transformational leadership meant to them as leaders in the space.

The Youth4UHC movement is the first Pan-African Movement with a focus on meaningful youth engagement in policy advocacy to achieve UHC 2030, and the attainment of SDG’s. The 3-hour session also engaged youth like Mary Wanjiku, better known as Shiko, who started a community based organization -Jubilated Young Mothers- in Mathare. She said “Youth need to get in touch and be aware of themselves, and the changes in their bodies. Young people need safe spaces for young mothers to talk about issues affecting them, mental health, contraceptives and ways of avoiding second or subsequent pregnancies.”

Speakers reiterated that the power of Universal Health Coverage (UHC) is in the hands of the youth.  They pointed out that the youth are now taking leadership and power into their hands and innovative solutions to their problems. It is for this reason that the Youth4UHC movement seeks to reach out to and interact with their political leaders and decision makers in order  to jointly identify the problems and form partnerships in driving solutions for the more than 70% youth population in the continent. As noted in the two hour session, youth no longer want to rely on the goodwill of those in power, but want sustainable solutions.

Speaking during the opening of the event, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala said that the youth population in Sub-Saharan Africa stood at 20%. “If their health needs were not looked into and taken care of, then the society is looking at a productivity nightmare,” she emphasized. This, she said, could be changed if young people became agents of their own health and advocates for their own health care needs. “Universal Health Coverage is equitable immunization and vaccination for all.” Young people in this generation are on social media and using some form of technology, to technological innovations can be used for the advancement of healthcare systems. She acknowledged that “Kenya is a hotbed of innovation and as such, the young people should be encouraged to develop apps that will advance healthcare.”

Ms. Hampton opined that “Young people are the present, not the future, and it is risky not to give them choice over their bodies.” She pointed out that young people can use technology to rate healthcare services, talk to their peers and direct them to the center where they were served best in a youth-friendly manner. Dr. Matheka encouraged young people to make regular visits to health facilities, and not to visit them only when they are unbearably unwell. Both Dr. Matheka and Ms. Hampton agreed that anyone, regardless of external discriminatory status should be able to access affordable healthcare, for check-ups and early detection of various conditions. They urged the youth to get together and have a common voice that will hold leaders accountable to the commitments they have made especially regarding healthcare for young people.

Also present was Dr. Alando from Jamaica who added his voice to the conversation with statistics indicating that mental health issues affect 25%of young people, but these issues are not addressed due to the stigma attached to them. He urged youth leaders to take a stand for those with mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and behavioral disorders and ensure that those affected get the treatment they need, when they need it. He also spoke of the necessity of not relying so much on technology and artificial intelligence and that there was constant need for the human touch, lack of which is affecting young people. ‘Youth are the transformative force of today. Youth voices must be heard, and they must be heard now.’

Ms. Nininahazwe from Burundi projected that if youth were not invested in, there will be a serious crisis. She said that young people need to be empowered to persuade leaders to make the right choices. She was supported by Dr. Magnifique Irakoze from Rwanda. He insisted that if young people were not involved in decision-making and empowered, then there would be little or no growth in the country. ‘Youth are the driving force behind participatory inclusion in decision making and policy making because the decisions made today will affect those who will be present tomorrow. Youth can no longer be consumers but have to be part of the decision making process.’

Bringing the session to a close, Dr. Gitahi Githinji, who is also co-chair of the UHC2030 WHO and World Bank initiative for achievement of UHC by 2030 said that “There needs to be increased awareness creation for UHC and its uptake by the young people, as well as their empowerment on health issues.” He encouraged youth present to make their personal commitments to UHC so as to make it a reality for Africa’s youth. Transformational leadership for youth means advocacy capacity, self-care, economic empowerment, education and innovation.

Young people’s views on UHC and what it is for them:

UHC is advocacy for rights for SRHR, safe spaces for articulation and self-expression. –Emmie, Kenya

UHC is the right for every person that should have been accomplished many years ago. However, we cannot disregard what is currently happening as these rights are enhanced and brought to the fore. –Richard, Kenya

UHC is free is not affordable healthcare in private and public hospitals.- Mukasa, Uganda

UHC is accessing free painkillers during periods. –Olive, Kenya

UHC is affordable healthcare regardless of income, background, education. It is the provision of essential and primary health services at an affordable fee if not free. – Yemurai, Zimbabwe

UHC is affordable healthcare for ALL. –Sharon, Tanzania

UHC is awareness of mental health and services.- Hope, Togo

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