On the last weekend of January, the University of Toronto and Toronto City Hall jointly hosted the Ontario Model World Health Organization conference. The gathering, which has become a staple of the UTIHP’s calendar, draws global health enthusiasts from all across Ontario and provides them with a unique opportunity to actively engage in debate on current public health issues while learning more about the structure and leadership of the World Health Organization. The conference’s primary aim is to encourage students to think critically about pressing global health issues and possible solutions.
Designed by U of T students to closely resemble the work of the WHO, the gathering takes place over three days and annually attracts students from a range of disciplines and degree-levels from all across Ontario. The delegates are separated into different sub-committees depending upon their interests and the most pressing issues of the day. Each student is then assigned to represent a particular country that is a member of the World Health Organization. In preparation for the meeting participants have to familiarize themselves with each aspect of their country’s health and foreign policies, from the amount of troops they have stationed around the world to the number of trained infectious diseases specialists available in the country. These seemingly minute details become of essential importance during the debate sessions.
After an exciting first day the second day of the conference begins with breakfast at the member’s lounge at Toronto City Hall, overlooking the heart of downtown Toronto. The day’s agenda consists of breakfast followed by a morning debate then lunch and an afternoon debate. Breakfast provides the perfect opportunities for delegates to get to know each other and get in some last minute preparation before the first session. The participants are then divided into their sub-committee and escorted to different rooms for committee sessions.
In the cavernous Council Chamber of City Hall, a building no stranger to bureaucracy and political dysfunction, the Committee on Refugee Health and Bioterrorism has the unenviable task of diffusing two global crises each laden with complex geopolitical subtext - a discovery of a new viral strain in Afghanistan and a downed Russian jet which invaded Turkish airspace to purportedly bring medical supplies to Syria. The sessions involved 12 minutes of moderated caucus with each country able to speak for 30 seconds at a time, followed by 15 minutes of unmoderated floor discussions between delegates. The goal is to come up with some kind of directive that will alleviate the situation.
One of the purposes of this gathering is for students to gain appreciation of the intricacies and behind-the-scenes politics that are associated with any major global organization. The delegates quickly discover the constraints of bureaucracy and the delicate balance required for diplomacy to work in an organization that includes dozens of countries, many of whom share decades of antagonistic historical relationships, competing ideologies, and clashing interests. And yet, these delegates remain undeterred to reach a compromise to put an end to their hypothetical crisis.
As the session drags on one thing is clear: these students, despite their widely diverging paths and qualifications, are united by an understanding of the importance of public health and an unwavering commitment to use their education and resources to make the world a safer place.
While they still have a long way to go, on a balmy Saturday in January the delegates of OMWHO gathered at City Hall, once the primary setting of a circus that made Torontonians question the very basis of our political system, and showed that in the right hands true democracy, debate, and diplomacy can prevail. They are all practitioners of the ideal that despite all the bureaucracy and competing interests, a small group of thoughtful and committed individuals is the only thing that can truly change the world.