All posts by Stefanie L Kaufman

Who and What Counts?

What and who counts? I found myself repeatedly asking this question during each distinct reading, converging the stories, separating them; piece by piece determining what and who counts. There are many different forms of contextual evidence to support what and who counts. If you look generally, of course, the people of impoverished, developing nations — benefiting exorbitantly from foreign and strange aid programs. Except, not very much. A large disconnect exists between what and who counts, whose agenda we are following, and why.

Chapter 1 of When People Come First alludes to a better future, where we have given up on the radical idea that singular-technology can “overcame any obstacle posed by social conditions and processes” (Biehl, 32). International agencies seemed to finally convene and agree upon their ignorance and lack of understanding (or desire to understand) regarding differing beliefs and ways of life. Basic power dynamics of International Givers are established, including the brief history of malariologists, and how “medical technology could only be administered by an elite group of experts.” This act made a clear distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ — allowing for critical knowledge and information to be kept private and isolated.

Historically, Sierra Leone has been a place of ramped colonialism and exploration — the birth ground of ‘us’ and ‘them’. In 1807, Sierra Leone became Britain’s first West African colony. At first, the location was idealized, but the rising and ferocious rate of deaths coined a new name — White Man’s Grave. Anyone who went could expect to die, or have something gravely wrong with them. I don’t believe our association between an uncivilized environment and people has ever gone away (Rankin, 3).

In 2005, when the author (Adia Benton) of HIV Exceptionalism attended a strategic-planning meeting for HIV/AIDS in Sierra Leone, she was struck by how prescribed and unoriginal the plan/information was. For example, there was one single reference to war, when refugees were mentioned, but besides that — nothing. This fact, in and of itself, is exceptional; considering the amount and degree of warfare ravaging the land.

This is is not the only issue with Sierra Leone’s AIDS work. 1% of the population is living with AIDS (18% of burden; 40% of disease), which is incredibly disproportional when analyzing others factors and determinants that lead to illness or death (whose agenda?). Additionally, the usual rhetoric for AIDS does not necessarily apply in Sierra Leone (poverty, etc.) — as AIDS does not disproportionally affect the poor. In fact, living with HIV is diversely spread across various socioeconomic classes — yet since this fact has not been taken into account, supports from the foreign and International aid highly favor the very poor individuals with HIV (Benton). As Benton states, “We are attempting to overlap poverty, social inequity, marginalization, etc. — which are not the primary determinants in Sierra Leone. There are different patterns of transmission, different strains. Factors like poverty affect where HIV-positive people seek care, the terms/quality/and efficacy of care, etc.

Benton introduces the concept of biotribalism, the carving up of spaces and distribution of resources according to presence/absence of HIV. At one Press Conference on the awareness and prevention of AID, a man stood up and stated, “How can you tell us that the disease is like any other disease but then treat it like it’s not? We’re having a press conference about it. There’s separate money for treating and dealing with the disease. Isn’t separating it also marginalizing the disease? Aren’t you marginalizing and causing discrimination by making it separate like this?” If social aspects like self-esteem and self-reliance create a healthier population (Biehl), then why are we attempting to control everything, down to there rationing of food?

So, the question begs, why do these efforts exist in isolation? Is it the generous stipends/unique benefits for workers? Is it the exceptionalist drive of living positively with HIV? Is it embedded reliance? Benton discusses how “HIV Exceptionalism amplifies existing disparities”, and I wonder if we have created a system that is un-functionable without foreign help and intervention. A report back to the World Bank in 2007 notes “projects are complex with many participants engaged in activities for which they have little … comparative advantage” (Benton, 46). Are food, natural supports, community supports, medical care, etc. not advantages in a war-torn country like Sierra Leone, with AIDS not nearly as large of a problem as starvation and poverty? Benton discusses those with HIV as a “special group” not necessarily ‘othered’ by stigma/their diagnoses, but because they have access to resources that no other individuals do. So, again, I ask the question, what and who counts?

Update:

In light of all the engaging and interesting comments, and the additional knowledge I have gained from class/readings, I am adding a short update to my blog. In the comment section, Methma asked, “I wonder how we can work to change these ideas of Africa as a “white man’s grave” and the association of an uncivilized environment and people, like you mentioned. Do you think these associations are mostly subconscious now or are they furthered by how we view aid in other countries?”  I believe it is mostly subconscious, but certain pressures and situations bring these inequities into the light. For example, many students chose to write about the difference in treatment between the foreign aid PIH worker who contracted Ebola (and was immediately sent to the US), and the community health worker for PIH (who had to wait two days before being taken to a clinic). This difference in treatment is pronounced and defined, and stands to support our historical notion of Africa being the ‘White Man’s Burden’, and the death of a white body meaning more, and being more of an ‘event’, than that of a black body.

Additionally, I want to clarify that I do not think that focusing on HIV/AIDS in Sierra Leone was a mistake — but wish these programs can be optimized, expanded, and executed properly — so as to reach the most amount of individuals, in the most successful manner. Shreya commented that “beggars can’t be choosers”, but I believe that viewing those in need of aid as ‘beggars’ meds itself to the colonialist view of the poor, desperate bodies in Africa. When discussing Improvising Medicine during Lecture, we spoke about how drastically different cancer is in the US/Botswana, yet those in Botswana were still deserving of decent, humane, and caring medical treatment. Of course, individuals will take what they can get, but we must never stop critically analyzing these interventions. We must continue to interrogate why it feels normalized and appropriate to provide Africans with no-frills care, but take extra caution to ease any ache and pain in a ‘suffering’ woman in the US. These tradeoffs are rooted deeply in colonialism, and have huge impacts and influences on the programs we provide, and the way we facilitate them.

Finally, in my blog post I state, “I wonder if we have created a system that is un-functionable without foreign help and intervention.” Through my continued learning of the PIH model, I am confident that there are solutions, however complex they may be, that can help lessen the dependence on foreign aid and international organizations. For example, PIH helped forge relations between Haiti and Rwanda, which serves as a south-south system of support and resources, capable of sustaining even after foreign aid has left. This is ultimately the goal, though utilizing services like PIH is definitely an essential part of that path.

Discussion Questions: 

1. To what extent is the newer influx/generation of Global Health worked influenced by colonialism and the original views/perceptions of Africa and the African body?

2. In terms of Global Health work, have we applied the concepts of ‘social determinants’ correctly? Biehl discusses a shift in Global Health work, acknowledging that social factors and institutions were not considered greatly enough in terms of disease (we once believe disease caused poverty, etc.), yet in terms of HIV Exceptionalism, it seems as though we are looking at and trying to overlap poverty, social inequity marginalization, etc. — which are not the primary determinants in Sierra Leone. How can we change the way we think about and apply the concept of social determinants?

3. To what extent have our AIDS-related efforts amplified existing disparities in Sierra Leone? Our are tracks traceable?

Sources: 

Benton, Adia. HIV Exceptionalism: Development through Disease in Sierra Leone. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2015. Print.

Cueto, Marcos. “A Return to the Magic Bullet?” When People Come First: Critical Studies in Global Health. By Joao Biehl and Adriana Petryna. Princeton: UP, 2013. 30-54. Print.

Rankin, F. Harrison. The White Man’s Grave: A Visit to Sierra Leone, in 1834. London: R. Bentley, 1836. Print.