Interview in july 2021 edition of USAID/West Africa Regional Health Office ParlerHealth Newsletter

Since 2020, Marie Ba has served as the Director of the Ouagadougou Partnership (OP) Coordination Unit and as a leading advocate and actor for women and families in the region. As Director, Marie leads collaboration and coordination among the OP’s stakeholders, including the Ministries of Health in the OP’s nine member countries, civil society organizations and other implementing partners, and major international donors for reproductive health, which collectively contribute over $150 million per year to advance reproductive health options and outcomes in the region. Marie leads dialogue, advocacy, and activities between partners at the global, regional and country levels, and helps to align support to countries’ reproductive health priorities defined by the Ministries of Health. Marie and her team are also especially passionate advocates for youth involvement and leadership in countries’ and partners’ decision-making, including on reproductive health policies and programs, and have provided training, employment, and direct support for youth leaders in reproductive health.

What have been the biggest challenges for Ouagadougou Partnership countries during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Well, this health crisis has further strained and stretched Ministries of Health and disrupted operations at health centers and other places where women and families receive crucial reproductive health services. In addition, so much of the Partnership’s work is to increase coordination, collaboration, and information sharing, all of which are harder when people are working from home or without reliable internet. At the same time, we are encouraged by how country leaders, implementing partners, and donors have stepped up with additional efforts and resources to ensure we maintain our momentum and continue progress despite these challenges.

What are the most important lessons learned for you about building a successful partnership?
In short, be transparent and direct about what you are trying to accomplish and what you are not. Partnerships succeed and add value because different participants bring unique strengths, perspectives, and needs. But that also means partnerships must first identify common ground among potential participants – what do we stand to gain by working together? – and must also then agree how or whether different parties will reconcile different goals, priorities, and activities. In a similar vein, I’ve learned that you need to be sure to create room for all voices in discussions, and not allow the largest or loudest voices to dominate all discussions. Members must understand their viewpoints are needed and valued, and I’m constantly amazed by how many new ideas and innovations can come from honest and open discussion.

How does the partnership engage with youth and what are some opportunities you see?
We see countless opportunities for West African youth to play meaningful roles in determining their own reproductive futures. At the OP, we’ve devoted a huge amount of our efforts to identifying, helping train, and supporting youth leaders to advocate their needs to their governments and to multilateral agencies, and to participate and help lead design of services and programs. We’ve developed many mechanisms to do so, including creating and supporting youth associations in our countries, hiring youth as OP staff and including them in own Boards, and sending youth to important events. We hope other organizations contribute to the future West Africa as well by including youth in their programming and their leadership not as figureheads or tokens, but as the most important constituency.

What drives you to be such a passionate advocate for West Africa and family planning?
Experience. I watch every day as women and families make decisions about their reproductive health without good information about their options. I see all around me wasted potential of brave African women and, for far too long, men and male-focused governments and communities make policies and laws about women’s livelihoods, well-being, education and bodily autonomy. But I’ve also seen the joy and fulfillment that comes when women and families are empowered to plan and control their reproductive lives, and the economic and other freedoms that in turn enable they and their families to live better lives.

Looking at the next 10 years of the OP, what is your deepest wish for the partnership?
To inspire a wide range of partnership and collaboration to advance women’s rights and to address our societies’ shortcomings. I believe our partnership can be a reference point and example of how to bring together capable, fierce and ambitious thought leaders, to move society forward, together.

This interview appeared in the USAID/West Africa Regional Health Office ParlerHealth Newsletter – July 2021 Edition available here.

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