Seattle parties to help ‘Mobile Moms’ in Timor-Leste

Partying for a purpose at Agency 2012

Melinda Gates was there. Supermodel Christy Turlington was there.

So were a thousand or two others, Seattle’s young humanitarians who started a Saturday evening bash with talks about maternal health but ended it with loud, thumping dance music.

Partying for a purpose at Agency 2012

This annual Seattle do-gooder event at McCaw Hall, sponsored by the Washington Global Health Alliance and formerly known as Party With A Purpose, is aimed at raising awareness among young people of critical issues in global health and also raising funds for a specific cause — all combined with some serious partying.

Now called Agency, this year’s event sought to educate the glam crowd of young do-gooders (and a few not-so-glam older folks like me) about the threat of maternal mortality and some of the efforts underway to increase safety of childbirth in poor countries.

The Seattle organization Health Alliance International, which recently launched a Mobile Moms text messaging service aimed at improving maternal health in Timor-Leste, is the beneficiary of the funds raised by the event’s ticket sales (which looked to be at least $40,000. Last year’s fund-raising focus was on the Infectious Disease Research Institute‘s TB work, which raised $34,000).

Susan Thompson of HAI's Timor-Leste program

“The idea is to use mobile phones, through text messaging, to get them the information they need for healthy births,” said Susan Thompson, head of the Timor-Leste program for HAI. The long-term goal, Thompson said, is to use this project to further her organization’s broader aim of strengthening the tiny country’s overall health system.

Because of the ubiquity of cell phones in even poor communities (Thompson said they did a survey and discovered 69% of the women had phones, and nearly all texted regularly), the idea is to test in Timor-Leste if reproductive health messaging using text messages sent to pregnant women will improve health outcomes.

“So-called ‘mHealth’ projects are very popular but we need to determine if they really work,” Thompson said.

This was the third such event for what used to be the self-explanatory Party with a Purpose. Besides changing its name to Agency (due to others already having a claim on the purposeful party name), the organizers also changed their approach.

Previous events focused on the threat of childhood diarrhea (a bold thematic move for party organizers) and TB, but only included exhibits and ‘infotainment’ games aimed at educating participants. This tended to make the event look much more like a party with a good fund-raising cause, but with little real evidence it was raising awareness of issues among participants.

“People wanted it to be more meaningful,” said Kristen Eddings, lead organizer for Agency. So this year, Eddings said, the party was preceded by another event called Groundswell — featuring Melinda Gates, supermodel and maternal health advocate  Christy Turlington and a number of global health and maternal health experts.

Kristen Eddings interviews Melinda Gates for Groundswell event

Eddings, who also served as the primary emcee for Groundswell, acknowledged that they had had a hard time getting their messages out to party goers at the previous events. Part of the problem was trying to directly mix partying with serious issues, she said, and part of it was sometimes just the technical challenge of trying to be heard over the noise.

So this year, before the drinking and dancing got going in earnest, more than two thousand people showed up at McCaw Hall to learn about a number of local efforts aimed at reducing maternal mortality, to meet some young winners of the local Be the Change contest (including the popular college-age team working with jumping spiders to fight malaria) and to also get a sense of what goes on behind closed doors at the Gates Foundation.

Amid a number of more issues-oriented questions put to Melinda Gates, who has made women’s health her top priority as a philanthropist, Eddings asked how she and Bill resolve it when they disagree on philanthropic priorities.

Melinda Gates: “All the rantings and ravings happen at home … We may push each other, but that all happens behind the scene.”

Bill may care more about polio eradication, she said, while her concern may be mostly family planning. But when they get done hashing all these things out in private, Melinda said they believe it is important to present a ‘unified front’ to their staff at the foundation and to the public.

“We may differ on things but it’s really a nice partnership,” she said. The major priorities and strategies taken by the Gates Foundation in global health have remained pretty consistent, Melinda said, and won’t change.

One more, late night clip from Agency:

 

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.