Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Being Mindful of Global Health

By Usnish Majumdar

I have no fear of making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own.

When I try to imagine global health, I think of a vast and complicated network of people, institutions, and rhetoric. There are these huge hubs like the UN Refugee Agency, the World Health Organization, and Partners in Health, and there are the smaller hubs of academic medical centers and national advocacy groups, and then the tiny little pinpricks made up of student groups and incipient organizations. They all serve individuals in different ways and at different levels, adding to their perceived complexity. In my head, it all ends up looking a bit like the wiring of a brain. But it’s probably quite a bit more like a Jackson Pollock painting. 

This sort of hand-wavy network metaphor is one of many that exist in the rhetorical space of global health. In many cases, such networks are little more than words that pass with conversation, or transient constructs built for the sake of argument in a paper. In other cases, however, a network manifests as an institution (really, a hub) that often focuses on one particular interest or another. These institutions are serving an important goal: making the network more effective and efficient. We can see the benefits of bettering networks in many contexts – NGOs all over the world are solving similar problems but there is no easy way of exchanging relevant institutional knowledge. Even within a single city, it is sometimes difficult to figure out which entities (policy briefs tend to call them ‘stakeholders’) are impacting a problem in which ways. Many local networks contain redundant members or potential collaborators that are not aware of each other.

At UVA, global health takes many forms. There are over a hundred different student groups devoted to a global health-related goal on grounds, and no real organizing principles. There are research groups across many different academic departments, not to mention multiple administrative centers that reach across multiple departments. Multiple national advocacy groups have student members on grounds. Occasionally you’ll come across a group’s educational or awareness campaign in one of numerous global-health related courses offered each semester. There are physicians and epidemiologists working as part of the hospital system that team up with students from multiple schools.

This glorious mess is part of why I love UVA, but the network is plagued with many of the same inefficiencies that we see elsewhere. Even a cursory search reveals redundant student groups. Students that decide to engage with global health are faced with decisional overload – there are so many different ways of getting involved, some of which are far more visible than others. People working in a particular region will hear “through the grapevine” of other UVA projects in the same region, often after having done a lot of groundwork without knowing of potential collaborators. Research collaborations in global health are necessarily transient and spontaneous, but there are few structures that make this more likely at UVA. 

Over the past few months, the Student Advisory Board has been working to build an interactive, sortable network of all the Global Health entities around grounds. We hope to have it done by the end of the semester, but mapping everything out visually is only the first step. A network map is a tool, not an end. With some effort on all fronts, perhaps we can make a Jackson Pollock painting look a bit more like a brain.

To be continued...

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