From July 18 to July 22, Durban, South Africa hosted the 21st International AIDS Conference, the largest gathering in the world for any single global health issue. Along with scores of researchers who spoke about their efforts and findings, politicians, HIV sufferers, and pop stars visited the event, including Elton John who brought funds from his eponymous AIDS foundation as well as some much-needed publicity. This year, he is working with PEPFAR to give AIDS relief specifically to LGBT people in developing nations ― particularly around Africa.
Though the African continent was well represented at the conference by numerous speakers, the resurgence of Western aid to African nations has encouraged some to question whether the African people want or appreciate such interferences in their public health.
While the African continent is plagued by some of the most terrifying diseases known to humankind, it may be surprising to learn that the average African is more concerned about issues unrelated to health, namely jobs, economic policies, infrastructure, and inequality. For the past decade, the vast majority of Africans fail to cite health as a top-tier problem, even amongst countries where the AIDS epidemic runs rampant.
Meanwhile, over two-thirds of aid provided from the U.S. is devoted to issues that most Africans find less pressing. In Kenya, which serves as a good example of what occurs throughout Africa, the U.S. has spent more than $5 billion; however, only 6 percent has targeted the top three national problems: lack of jobs, inadequate infrastructure, and unfavorable economic conditions.
This is not to say that public health is less or more important than economic and equality issues; rather, it highlights a discrepancy between what Africans claim to want for themselves and what the West continues to provide. It harkens to a comment made by then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about foreign aid: “Too often, donors’ decisions are driven more by our own political interests or our policy preferences than by our partners’ needs.”
Addressing these global health concerns, and shaping the necessary government policy to do so is something many students can learn while obtaining a master’s of public health. To learn more click here. The field of public health offers diverse opportunities for those who are passionate about improving community health and well-being at the local, national, and international levels. Health policies and aims in the U.S. can vary widely from the needs in other countries, in addition to other studied international issues like epidemiology. Those who wish to be effective public health officials must learn the differences between their own goals and the goals of the communities they serve ― be they in Africa or elsewhere.
According to historian Melissa Graboyes, there exists a terrible disconnect between the goals of Western public health providers and ordinary Africans. Often, Westerners use African populations as subjects for research, intending to expand world knowledge while promoting their studies as therapeutic for the local groups.
As a result, many Africans fail to realize that they are merely members of scientific research; instead, those unfamiliar with Western practices believe researchers are coming into their communities to resolve health issues for good.
Unfortunately, Africans rarely receive the true public health attention they need from these researchers. Sometimes, studies target health problems that aren’t especially devastating to communities for the sake of understanding more about particular diseases.
For example, filariasis is a parasitic disease that is relatively rare elsewhere in the world, making it a fascinating study for Western researchers. However, filariasis is neither deadly nor debilitating, and most African communities would prefer Western health attention elsewhere ― smallpox, malaria, AIDS.
Additionally, when Westerners leave at the conclusion of their studies, they abandon these African communities without fully eradicating the disease. In one case, a research attempt to eradicate mosquitoes in an area did lower malaria rates ― until the research team departed before the mosquito populations were truly dead, and drug-resistant forms of malaria began to flourish.
Even after Western intervention, African communities suffer from health problems, and sometimes these studies only make the suffering worse.
It is not a surprise, then, that few African communities primarily seek medical aid from the West, and some are actively criticizing the limitations of outside interference. In Uganda, groups are loudly protesting the intervention of PEPFAR ― the organization Elton John partnered with this year.
The problem is not the medical aid provided by PEPFAR, but rather its Western values. A large percentage of Ugandans are ardent Christians who resent the organization’s interest in helping LGBTQ individuals while the rest of the population continues to languish from diseases unrelated to sexual orientation, like tuberculosis and malaria.
While the additional resources for public health are useful in countries hard-hit by virulent disease ― particularly those in Western Africa, like Ghana, that recently suffered from the Ebola outbreak ― ordinary Africans definitely prefer that Western funds go to programs that help them generate their own authority and medical aid. Then, the discrepancy between the goals of Westerners and the goals of Africans won’t matter because the latter will have complete control over their public health.