Tag Archives: Global Health

Local causation and implementation science

If you want to move a successful intervention from here (where it was first identified) to there (a plurality of new settings), spend your time understanding the context of the intervention. Understand the context of success. Implementation Science—the science of moving successful interventions from here to there—assumes a real (in the world effect) that can be generalised to new settings. In our latest (open access) article, recently published in Social Science and Medicine, we re-imagine that presumption.

As researchers and development specialists, we are taught to focus on causes as singular things: A causes B. Intervention A reduces infant mortality (B1), increases crop yields (B2), keeps girls in school longer (B3), or…. When we discover the new intervention that will improve the lives of the many, we naturally get excited. We want to implement it everywhere. And yet, the new intervention so often fails in new settings. It isn’t as effective as advertised and/or it’s more expensive. The intervention simply does not scale-up and potentially results in harm. Effort and resources are diverted from those things that already work better there to implement the new intervention, which showed so much promise in the original setting, here.

The intervention does not fail in new settings because the cause-effect never existed. It fails in new settings because causes are local. The effect that was observed here was not caused by A alone. The intervention was not a singular cause. A causes B within a context that allows the relationship between cause and effect to be manifest. The original research in which A was identified had social, economic, cultural, political, environmental, and physical properties. Some of those properties are required for the realisation of the cause-effect. This means that generalisation is really about re-engineeering context. We need to make sure the target settings have the the right contextual factors in place for the intervention to work. We are re-creating local contexts. The implementation problem is one of understanding the re-engineering that is required.


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 fibre 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” (also see). That is, the way (global health) science is done, how it is prioritised, and who is advantaged. It is a description of science 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, content, and what they highlight and ignore require a shared and 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? 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 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 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 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 Asia. Then I moved 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.

The original article was first published on medium.com on 26 March 2021. This version is very slightly edited.