Time for Global Health to Unpack the Invisible Knapsack

Time for Global Health to Unpack the Invisible Knapsack

Muriel Mac-Seing and Shaun Cleaver

November 23, 2015

We are disability-focused practitioners and research trainees who participated in the Canadian Conference on Global Health, held in Montreal November 5-7, 2015. We found the content and dialogue of this conference refreshing: it inspired us and challenged us to act and reflect on some difficult questions which we should not avoid if we are to be responsible global citizens and global health practitioners and researchers.

This process of difficult questioning peaked in one of the conference’s final sessions, “Who me? A workshop on power, privilege and inclusion in global health,” led by the CCGHR’s Theme Group for Inclusion and Disability (TGID). Despite being scheduled at a time that was not favouring a big turnout, the room was packed, with participants exuding significant energy, discussions and curiosity to unravel the meaning behind the workshop’s themes.

The main message of the workshop was that participants should be aware of the power and privileges they are accorded through their status, colour of skin, age, gender, ability and background or the country where they come from. In writing about privilege, author Peggy McIntosh referred to this as “an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks”.

The considerations of power and privilege have huge considerations on global health work, and yet they often go unexamined. Some global health actors are blessed with ‘the knapsack’ and make use of its contents – possibly in some very positive ways – without realizing it. Meanwhile, many others (including our ‘local partners’), do not have these same resources at their disposal. As a result, the forces of power and privilege manifest themselves invisibly on a daily basis, disempowering our closest collaborators without us even noticing that this happens.

Actors who experience privilege and recognise it can find ways to position themselves in more constructive ways. Workshop facilitator Stephanie Nixon (University of Toronto, International Centre for Disability and Rehabilitation) suggested that we look more closely at “allyship”, noting that it is:
“an active, consistent, and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which a person of privilege seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalized group of people. Allyship is not an identity – it is a lifelong process of building relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability with marginalized individuals and/or groups of people.”

These notions were not isolated from what was going on in other sessions; in fact they were complementary to others, making us believe that global health might finally be ready to approach these difficult issues with the attention they deserve. Sharon Fonn (University of Witwatersand) spoke of the “power of giving up power” when partnering with organisations of the Global South to undertake research initiatives. Christina Zarowsky (Université de Montréal) asked us “to consider power dynamics, people’s history and processes in capacity-building”. In another session, the CCGHR emphasized on the importance of humility as a principle in global health research, a value that is rarely taught in universities or within organisational structures. And amid global health initiatives and research, Isabella Danel (PAHO) stressed the necessity of leaving “no one behind”, not only as a matter of governance, but as a human rights issue.

Gilles Bibeau (Centre hospitalier universitaire de Sainte-Justine) encouraged us to “open and unlock boundaries” in partnership, research and global health. We thus believe that we have the privilege and the responsibility to be more open and generous in learning from one another, building capacities and exchanging among global partners involved in policy-making, programming and research initiatives.

We were ecstatic to see these types of considerations highlighted and reinforced in the conference and hope that this is merely the beginning of the era where global health actors mainstream these considerations into all that they do.

Muriel Mac-Seing, PhD Candidate, École de Santé Publique, Université de Montréal; Member, CCGHR Theme Group on Inclusion and Disability.
Shaun Cleaver, PhD Candidate, Rehabilitation Sciences Institute, University of Toronto; Member, CCGHR Theme Group on Inclusion and Disability.