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Global Health Diplomacy: A Reflection of San Francisco Values

By: Sebastian Kevany

San Francisco, despite its relatively isolated geo-international position, has a long and distinguished history as a cosmopolitan and international city. This reputation is further enhanced by a reputation for tolerance, progressive thought, anti-war ‘peaceniks’, technological innovation, and a willingness to experiment with the status quo in new ways to advance humanity – including novel approaches to international development.

This ambience has contributed to the growth of interdisciplinary initiatives such as global health diplomacy (GHD) in the Bay Area, combining ostensibly separate skill sets in unprecedented ways. To many, GHD – leveraging global health programs to pursue diplomatic or foreign policy goals – may be considered an uneasy partnership. However, these odd bedfellows, if combined correctly, may help to mitigate or avoid the use of armed international interventions.Sebastian with the Global Fund in Sudan

In settings such as Iraq, Afghanistan and South Sudan, appropriately designed and delivered health and development interventions have been proven to advance diplomacy, international relations, and foreign policy. The effectiveness of these interventions is the result of carefully designed international development programs using the most appropriate, adaptable and sensitive (culturally, religiously, politically and socially) approaches. As a result, these interventions present holistic and meaningful alternatives to the armed pursuit of political, international relations and strategic objectives.

For example, an analysis of malaria-related interventions in Afghanistan that I recently co-authored found that, in addition to successful bed net distribution, the global health programs also resulted in increased access to extremist populations and insecure regions; enhanced donor prestige and acceptability; and the development of an international presence in otherwise-inaccessible provinces. Overall, this study found that “when global health programmes are delivered with international relations considerations in mind, they have the potential to generate unquantified diplomatic outcomes.”

Field experience of the design and delivery of global health programs in conflict and post-conflict settings has continuously demanded diplomatic approaches from global health’s ‘barefoot ambassadors’ – not just at the policy level, but (of equal or more importance) via the integration of diplomatic training and values at the individual level, often in the most demanding of circumstances.

Although there is no formal diplomatic corps in the Bay Area, those who contribute to international health and development (such as the University of California San Francisco’s Global Health Sciences, the University of California at Berkeley’s Center for Global Public Health, and Stanford’s Center for Innovation in Global Health as well as organizations like RTI’s Women’s Global Health Imperative, Living Goods and  Medic Mobile) are, therefore, as close to international envoys as California gets.

The formalization of these skills – including innovative methods of evaluating and vetting global health programs from the diplomatic context – is also reflected in the planned formation of the first Institute for Health Development and Diplomacy under Ambassador Eric Goosby at UCSF. This is just one example of how the Bay Area is contributing, not just to international development, but to broader considerations and pursuits such as international relations and world peace that embody the best (and least pejorative) interpretations of ‘San Francisco values’ – cultural, social and moral attributes associated with the city, its liberal politics and pluralist culture.

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Sebastian Kevany is an International Policy Specialist at the University of California, San Francisco. His related work can be found at

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