"Informal Conversations" at the Harvard Global Health Institute

Professor Ahmed Ragab launched the Harvard Global Health Institute’s Fall 2013 “Informal Conversations” series, which explores cross-disciplinary issues, ideas, challenges, and opportunities in global health, with a luncheon talk involving faculty and students on October 30, 2013. Prof. Ragab began by framing "global health" within its broader history: interactions between the power-dominant rich regions of the "global north" and the historically lower- and middle-income regions of the "global south". A secular discourse has shaped these interactions, separating religion from health in much of the Western world since the sixteenth century. Both medical missions and colonial medicine have perpetuated power differentials, and these effects continue to impact the lived experiences of many around the world for whom faith is an important part of a complex set of beliefs that in turn affect health attitudes and behaviors.

Religion and culture are far more nuanced than they might appear to health workers. This means that global institutions like the WHO, which team up with faith-based groups to promote local change, often find themselves in collaborations plagued by hidden agendas and unintended consequences. Monies and aid efforts from single-issue donors in the global north, for example, may "coerce" individuals and communities in the global south to focus on what gets funding, even when their real needs are quite different or extend beyond the external boundaries of the targeted health issue. Empowering religious leaders does not necessarily ensure mutual respect, agency, or even agreement with global partners on the health issues at stake.

We learn what works best, Prof. Ragab said, from projects that are socially connected and locally related, those that depend on strong local support and that train and trust local practitioners. Such opportunities can couple with policy education, transforming leaders for the next generation. Prof. Ragab also encouraged participants to pay attention to empowerment, authority, and resource distribution, to be mindful of the kinds of questions we ask as individuals within the academy, and to be thoughtful about the way we treat one another. Cultural difference is no excuse for "dumbing down" scientific facts, he said; rather, "There is a moral obligation to explain things because this is the only way to respect a person’s agency and ability to make choices—even if we disagree with their choices."

The remarks sparked lively discussion and new questions. Participants asked, "What would it be like if people here at Harvard wanted to learn more about health and religion?" "What lessons can we take away from aid examples that have effectively helped to build long-term infrastructure?" What do YOU think?

Source: Harvard Global Health Institute