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.

Issue Highlight Vol 40 Issue 2: Hospitals as Sites of Conflict in Pakistan

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In the coming blog posts, we will be highlighting 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 will overview Emma Varley’s article “Abandonments, Solidarities and Logics of Care: Hospitals as Sites of Sectarian Conflict in Gilgit-Baltistan.” Read the full article here.


As our past blog highlights have suggested, the clinical space can both act as a site of political protest and serve to facilitate political unity. Varley’s article expands upon these themes by arguing that the clinic can also become a microcosm of inter-group tensions, wherein the hospital itself relays a picture of broader social conflict. Through her analysis of a crisis in a Pakistani hospital, Varley ethnographically demonstrates how Sunni-Shia conflicts manifest in the clinic, and how these tensions are navigated by health professionals employed there.

Varley recounts a shooting and raid which occurred at a hospital in Gilgit-Baltistan in January 2005. Shia gunmen had entered the regional hospital to hunt down Sunni male patients, aiming to retaliate after the assassination of a Shia leader killed by Sunnis. One women’s health ward, operated by nurses of the neutral Ismaili group, was left untouched after the nurses hid Sunni male patients. The nurses protected the men by insisting to the gunmen that there would be no male patients on a female ward: drawing both upon their social role as neutral Ismaili and their gendered role as caregivers of women, who were seen as uninvolved in the conflict at hand. Meanwhile, in a surgical theatre, physicians pretended as if the assassinated Shia leader on their operating table was still alive: hoping to placate the gunmen who threatened them until police or military forces could arrive to dispel the violence. Orderlies and other guards on the wards had, in some cases, fled: leaving clinical staff to defend or otherwise conceal the Sunni patients, and in other cases, fellow Sunni providers.

In reflecting on this incident, Varley notes that the hospital became an example of an “abandoned” space, one in which the necessary governmental protections and securities were not in place to ensure the safety of all patients and clinicians. The onus of protecting patients fell upon the clinicians who staffed the hospital: illustrating both the selflessness of individuals in assisting one another across oppositional group divides, and the potential for hospitals to become sites of medical and political refuge. This increased the trust between Shia providers and their Sunni colleagues in medicine. Conversely, the incident intensified professional divisions between Shia and Sunni providers, as Sunni clinicians later departed the larger regional hospital and took up employment in new Sunni health centers where they felt less at risk.

Though Varley reminds us that conflict is “corrosive” within medical professional relationships, it may also enable “renewed” feelings of trust between caregivers of opposing groups when political unrest unites them under a common aim. In sum, the hospital may serve a site of caregiving exchanges that expand beyond the bounds of medical encounters, as it becomes a sites of political action and negotiation between social groups.

Issue Highlight Vol 40 Issue 2: Medical Humanitarianism and Conflict in Turkey

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In the next few blog updates, we will be 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 will overview Salih Can Aciksoz’s article “Medical Humanitarianism Under Atmospheric Violence: Health Professionals in the 2013 Gezi Protests in Turkey.” Read the full article here.


Aciksoz’s article begins by painting a scene. In the summer of 2013, protests erupted throughout Turkey, leading to violent clashes between armed police forces and civilian protestors. Humanitarian health workers began to establish make-shift infirmaries near known sites of conflict to treat wounded protestors, yet soon themselves became targets of the police who directed tear gas and turned their weapons upon the infirmaries. Those tasked with quashing riots and subduing protests soon fixed their ire on the health professionals who cared for wounded protestors: viewing these clinicians not as neutral aid workers, but instead as complicit members of the uprisings they were attempting to quell. In time, emergency healthcare offered to protestors was deemed criminal activity by the Turkish government.

The author frames the Gezi Protests in terms of the security of medical spaces. Medical humanitarianism, he notes, is premised on the neutrality of care giving centers which serve as a “safe space” for medical aid to be delivered in times of “crisis” to anyone in need. However, this designation as a safe space relies on the authority of a state to recognize it as such. The Turkish government’s criminalization of the humanitarian infirmaries aligned health professionals with protestors, despite any claims to political neutrality. In Turkey, the ability for make-shift infirmaries to serve as neutral care centers was further threatened by the use of a particular weapon: tear gas and similar chemical weapons. An indiscriminate gas could transform entire physical areas– especially enclosed ones– into dangerous structures where all people were at risk of exposure. The use of gas by police forces inside clinics prevented these spaces from being both politically neutral and medically safe for patients and health professionals within.

The state’s designation of infirmaries as a site of criminal activity, and health professionals’ attendance to protestors as insurgent, did not always align with the accounts that Ackisoz collected from Turkish clinicians themselves. Even whenever health professionals confessed that they sympathized with the cause of the protestors, they nevertheless distinguished their political beliefs from their medical obligation. Many described their medical involvement with the protests as a natural response to crisis: as understandable as if they were responding to victims of an earthquake or other disaster. Yet their work also bordered on activism, as numerous clinicians sought to aid protestors after noting the failures of state-operated hospitals and ambulances to attend to the medical needs of all injured protestors.

In sum, Ackisoz argues that what constitutes “medical humanitarianism” borders on many other domains of society: on the state, on the government’s definition of both criminality and on appropriate use of force, on what constitutes political dissidence and whether or not “humanitarianism” is strictly neutral whenever any medical action has the potential to shed light on political failings. The article demonstrates that the ethnographic and social constructivist lenses are well-suited to the analysis of the troubled boundaries between politics and medicine, and between healing and the state in periods of upheaval.