Dr. Ren Minghui, Director General of the Department of International Cooperation at China's National Health and Family Planning Commission (NI YANSHUO)
In April 1963, the China sent its first medical team to Algeria, marking the beginning of its international medical assistance program. Fifty years have passed. Dr. Ren Minghui, Director General of the Department of International Cooperation at China's National Health and Family Planning Commission (NHFPC), believes that Chinese medical teams have helped raise local medical standards in African countries. During their 50 years of service, Chinese medical teams in Africa have become local legends. Recently, Ren spoke to ChinAfrica about his views on Chinese medical assistance to and cooperation with Africa.
ChinAfrica: What has been achieved in China-Africa health cooperation in the past five decades?
Ren Minghui: First, the hard work done by Chinese medical teams has established a banner of Chinese medical services in Africa. As far as I know, African people are most impressed by two China-aid projects: the Tanzania-Zambia Railway and Chinese medical teams, especially the latter. Over the past 50 years, the Chinese medical workers have provided services to around 260 million patients in Africa.
But I don't think figures are that important as the fact that China has never stopped this program over the past half century. Although some countries have also sent volunteers and doctors to Africa, none has kept doing this for such a long time without interruption as China has. This is definitely a legendary effort. Many African heads of state and ministers have told us their own stories about Chinese medical teams. Some ministers were delivered by doctors from such medical teams.
Second, while helping relieving pains of local patients, Chinese medical teams have helped host countries in establishing their own healthcare systems and training local medical personnel. Our medical teams are fully aware that a country's public health development cannot depend only on the assistance of other countries, but more on the improvement of skills of local medical workers, as well as their participation. In addition, the Chinese Government has also invited African health officials and medical specialists to come to China to attend training programs in areas such as health management, public health policies and malaria prevention and control. Our medical assistance to and cooperation with Africa have been expanded in many new forms over the years.
What challenges is Chinese medical assistance to Africa facing?
The biggest challenge is the lack of an overall national strategic plan for our medical assistance to Africa. At present, we mainly provide medical services based on the requirements of African countries and our own capacity. It's better to plan ahead and take action proactively rather than to simply respond to events.
Today, after 50 years of providing medical assistance to Africa, we suggest we have a longer-term strategic plan for bilateral health cooperation. Under this overall strategy, health cooperation and exchanges with African countries are done through concerted efforts by Chinese government agencies, NGOs, enterprises, think tanks and research institutions, as well as international organizations.
In addition, government departments and agencies should have a consensus regarding the importance of bilateral health cooperation for China-Africa relations as well as in the country's foreign policies. Only when this consensus is reached, can they better coordinate their efforts in providing financial support, personnel training and capcity building for host countries.
Third, more research needs to be done, especially on the cases of other countries in health aid to Africa. The United States, Japan and some international organizations, such as the World Bank and the World Health Organization (WHO), have also carried out many health programs in Africa. We need to learn from their successful experiences.
Fourth, more funding is needed. In addition to Central Government financing, local governments and enterprises should also play their part. It's encouraging to see that some state-owned enterprises investing in Africa have donated funding for medical assistance programs, which helps them fulfill their social responsibilities and establish good reputations.
As an NHFPC official, how do you see the enterprises' involvement in the country's medical assistance to Africa?
We strongly encourage more enterprises to launch health programs in Africa. Sinopharm Group, an SOE and the first Chinese pharmaceutical company listed among the global top 500, has shown great interest in doing so. Fosunpharm, a Shanghai-based anti-malaria drug manufacturer, has carried out a program in Africa. Also, the China Chamber of Commerce for Import & Export of Medicines & Health Products (CCCMHPIE), under the Ministry of Commerce, has been working for years to encourage private Chinese pharmaceutical enterprises to invest in African market.
What's a new trend in China-Africa health cooperation?
Generally speaking, models of China-Africa cooperation are becoming increasingly diverse. In terms of medical care, we are still in the aid phase with the Chinese Government acting as the major investor; but other kinds of cooperation aside from medical team aid also exist. Some Chinese enterprises have worked with NGOs to build hospitals in Africa. The China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation, for example, helped build the Sino-Sudan Abu Ushar Friendship Hospital in Sudan, which is funded by the China National Petroleum Corp.
There are also some public health and academic research programs that have received investment from African countries and international organizations in the form of material and human resources, which have enhanced the self-reliance of local health development.
Some Chinese NGOs are working in Africa. Should their work be supported?
Of course. They deserve full support. The Central Committee of the Communist Youth League of China owns a youth volunteer organization that has sent medical professionals to different African countries. I also think it's necessary to have different organizations working coherently and cooperating with each other. Chinese NGOs or relevant institutions intending to provide medical services in Africa are advised to make good use of our medical teams, as cooperation can strengthen all the efforts. Worldwide communication is also necessary to avoid wasting resources by overfunding a single program, leaving other programs with nothing.
What should NGO volunteers pay attention to when they are working in Africa?
First, they should have a competent knowledge of the countries they are going to, including their cultures, health systems and medical services.
Second, they should be aware of the common diseases in the area where they are working and be prepared to do the work according to their capacity, since passion alone does not make them qualified to help. They should keep in contact with the relevant Chinese embassy and medical team, if there is one, so that they can get technical support when facing difficulties.
Meanwhile, we also expect to get feedback and suggestions from volunteers, because we still have not learned enough about African countries despite the fact that our medical teams have worked there for 50 years. Therefore, we hope to communicate with NGOs to use their experiences and suggestions for our future work.
In what ways will you cooperate with international organizations?
International cooperation mainly focuses on public health. For example, the WHO works in the fields of tuberculosis, AIDS, infectious diseases and maternal and child health; UNAIDS focused on AIDS issues. Most United Nations agencies, including some quasi-UN agencies, are concerned with public health in African countries.
However, these international organizations have done little in improving local health systems, such as training personnel, building hospitals, and providing guidance on health policies. These are exactly what China is good at; our medical teams provide clinical services and build hospitals. Meanwhile, we hope to use international platforms to share our 60 years of experience in improving public health with African countries. Currently, we are running a program with the WHO to fight schistosoma in Tanzania.