Issue Highlight Vol 40 Issue 2: Global Health Diplomacy in Ethiopia

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Across the past few weeks, we have been spotlighting new articles from our June 2016 issue, which you can access in full here. The theme of this special issue is The Clinic in Crisis: Medicine and Politics in the Context of Social Upheaval. This week, we visit Lauren Carruth’s article “Peace in the Clinic: Rethinking ‘Global Health Diplomacy’ in the Somali Region of Ethiopia.” You can read the full article at this link.


In this article, Carruth argues that the politics of global health manifest not only at the scale of “interstate” interactions between governments, NGOs, and international assemblies, but at the local and interpersonal levels between individuals who are giving, receiving, and managing clinical care in “politically insecure” places. Through ethnographic research on two health programs in the Somali region of Ethiopia, the author argues that medical care provision can alternatively strain and strengthen political relationships between people across ethnic and social boundaries.

For instance, Somali people in Ethiopia often refused to seek medical services from the local clinic, Aysha Health Center. Somali patients complained that the Habesha (a native Ethiopian group) nurses were insensitive and uninterested in treating their health concerns. Many Somali informants offered up the same story as evidence: three mothers went to the clinic, and their three children had different ailments. Yet the Habesha nurses did not examine the children, and offered the same drugs to each of the mothers without diagnosing each patient. Somali patients also had difficulty securing a translator who could assist them in conversations with clinicians, who spoke Amharic. The Habesha clinic staff countered that the Somali patients were adverse to biomedical care, instead trusting native folk healers over the clinicians. They added that Somali patients would not adhere to the medication regimens or treatment plans that they recommended. In this case, the friction between Habesha caregivers and Somali patients intensified long-standing ethnic and political tensions at the local scale.

Carruth presents another case, however, where medical aid eases inter-ethnic relationships and ameliorate social rifts between opposing groups. She describes a mobile UNICEF clinic staffed by two Somali clinicians of the Ogaden clan operating in Ethiopia. Though these Somali clinicians were caring for fellow Somali patients, the patients descended from a less politically powerful line which did not have the dominant social standing of the Ogaden: a clan with significant regional power in Ethiopia. Though the patients were of opposing clans, such as the Issa, the two clinicians listened intently to the patients’ complaints, recalled their family lines when they returned for further treatment, and even offered resources like supplementary nutrition to ailing patients despite UNICEF limitations on what types of patients could receive these rations. The patients adored the mobile clinic staff, and the clinicians became integrated into the marginalized communities they served. This example, Carruth notes, highlights the potential for medical aid to facilitate positive and deeply personal relationships between factions in regions that have otherwise experienced significant social unrest.

Carruth concludes that in order to successfully deliver medical aid to places encountering social upheaval or unrest, it is critical to unite oppositional groups within clinical spaces themselves. Providing medical resources and building clinics alone, she notes, fails to address the need to facilitate positive relationships between individuals mired in conflict. Instead, to ease political and social tensions, Carruth posits that clinics and similar treatment centers can serve as sites of caring, communal exchange between otherwise opposed social groups.

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