The cartographic challenge of decolonising global health

A navigational chart from the Marshall Islands, on display at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. It is made of wood, sennit fiber and cowrie shells. From the collection of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. Date not known. Photo by Jim Heaphy. (Wikipedia; CC BY-SA 3.0)

There are a growing number of papers in the peer-reviewed literature about decolonising global health (see). Pascale Allotey and I have discussed the problem in terms of “trickle-down science”. That is, the way (global health) science is done, how it is prioritised, and who is advantaged by it. It is a description of science that is generally conceived and managed from powerful institutions in the global north, with implementing partners in the global south, their factories for data collection. We have also critiqued critiques that advocate a utopic version of global health, arguing that:

decolonising global health extends beyond relations between [low- and middle-income countries] LMICs and [high-income countries] HICs; it is also about the relationships within them. Decolonisation is fundamentally about redressing inequity and power imbalance.

The latest offering on the altar of peer-review is a three-step roadmap to the decolonisation of global health and a call to join the authors on their journey. Maps, however, are tricky things. They are culture-bound and themselves tools of colonisation. Their design, their content, what they highlight and what they ignore requires a shared and an agreed understanding of the path and the goal. Woe betide the European sailor trying to navigate using the Marshall Islands stick chart.

Much as I applaud the idea of redressing the power imbalance in global health, this particular attempt is tone deaf. It is presented as if decolonisation was waiting for six authors from three of the world’s wealthiest countries to explain it to “the colonies”. Readers will forgive the irony that the first and last authors of the roadmap are at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) — an institution established to support the colonial administration of the world’s greatest empire — an institution that, to this day, encourages and benefits from neocolonial relationships with the global south. The authors note these kinds of relationships and bravely forge on.

In developing the roadmap, the authors draw parallels with the feminist movement. An apt analogy (tongue firmly in cheek) because who cannot recall the importance to the feminist movement of first having men in power explain how it should be done? The men were so quick to relinquish their power that one barely remembers the days of gender inequality. Who does not know (tongue back behind teeth) that women of privilege often powered the first and second waves of feminism, and the movement systematically failed to account for class differences, colour-lines, and culture — leaving many women behind. The voice matters.

Who has the right to speak for whom in global health is a challenge. In a previous Medium article, I wrote about this very issue. Fighting over the legitimacy of the voice is always fraught, and passions can run high. Are voices from some countries/institutions with this or that history as a colonial master or servant to be more or less valued than others? Is it more or less hypocritical to privilege voices from LSHTM, Johns Hopkins University, or the University of Washington over those from Makarere University, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, or the Oswaldo Cruz Institute?

“Decolonising” is ultimately about forgoing power and transferring power. It is something that has to happen between countries and within countries. There is a cacophony of voices, all of which should be heard — but they are not all equally important. They do not all warrant the same time and space. The authors of “the roadmap” are neither transferring nor forgoing power. As the cartographers, they determine the path, the points of interest, and the rest-stops.

The roadmap for decolonising global health should not be determined nor led by countries and institutions simultaneously holding the whip and the chum.

#decolonising #decolonising #globalhealth.

With any piece I write about decolonising global health, I always have two competing voices in my head: “this issue is important, say it” and “should I be the one saying it?” I will declare my conflicts, and you can decide if you want to listen to or shoot the messenger. I am a white male born in (not by choice) the British Colony of Southern Rhodesia. In virtue of privilege and choice, I have lived and worked in Australia and the UK, and for the last 12 years, Malaysia and Bangladesh. My partner and I moved to Southeast and then I to South Asia because we were committed to capacity building, and decided it was no longer appropriate to work in the global health space while sitting in a high-income country. I have never held appointments at LSHTM, Johns Hopkins University, or the University of Washington.