by Harini P. Aiyer
As a first-year PhD student of Community and Population Health Sciences at the University of Saskatchewan, I received a travel bursary from the Canadian Coalition for Global Health Research (CCGHR) to gain practical skills in global health through a summer course at the University of British Columbia (UBC).
My professional journey took several turns to ultimately lead me to study how technology can improve the health of marginalized communities. Although I am originally from India, and I have spent three years working in my country, this course was my first formal exposure to global health research, and I was very curious to learn about both the conceptual and practical aspects of global health projects. Going into the course, I was also interested in examining the similarities and differences between global health work and community-based research involving the Indigenous Peoples of Canada.
The course – “Practical Knowledge and Skills for Working in Global Health” was mainly offered online, but also included a 3-day Face-to-Face (F2F) session at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. The course introduced me to the CCGHR Principles for Global Health Research that were designed to inform researchers, funders, and administrators in the field.
The F2F Session
The F2F session included a series of lectures on a wide array of topics from proposal writing, Logic Framework Analysis (LFA), the global health workforce crisis, to the impact of international trade agreements on health. The instructors also shared instances from their years of experience in the field and several pointers to anticipate the potential challenges and implications to our projects. For example, “If anti-abortion laws come into force in the United States, how could that potentially impact the care provided through your project to a partner country?”
Early in the session, a discussion arose around the topic of corruption in developing countries, especially those with a history of colonization. A student in our class suggested that corruption, like greed, was universal. During my time in India, I had heard about the corruption in the system that doesn’t allow funds from WHO to reach the communities that needed it the most, and I too was wondering if corruption was a demotivating factor for researchers entering the field. Professor Annalee Yassi responded by saying that corruption has deep historical roots that go back to colonization. She also recommended that we understand the socioeconomic and political history of the country we partner with on global health projects before we begin the process. This reduces our reliance on preconceived notions and allows us to develop an authentic partnership without judgement.
Day 2 involved a group reflection session where I raised the question of whether the CCGHR Principles may be applied while working with the Indigenous Peoples of Canada. Although the Principles were designed with global health research in mind, some of them are very relevant to projects involving the Indigenous Peoples of Canada. For instance, Indigenous communities must be approached with humility and respect for their worldview, they should be included in every step of the decision-making process and a sustainable commitment to the future must be proposed to address the existing inequities.
It is of utmost importance to ensure that we need to have the right attitude to work with communities. Members of the communities understand the impact of colonialism and neoliberalism on their lives. We were told that in several instances, partners in the Global South would rather have students who were humble and willing to learn rather than those who were academically competent, but not humble.
The course not only served as a platform for the instructors to share their experience working in global health, but also allowed individual students to share their lived experiences. I am also grateful for the friends I made through the program and the time we spent connecting outside the program—over lunch at a cozy restaurant in beautiful Vancouver—as we discussed power and race relationships while working with marginalized communities.
After the face to face session, I spent a week exploring Vancouver and doing a lot of self-reflection. For example, the Principles recommend authentic partnering and establishing equity in every step of the process. However, the process of securing grants tends to favor succinct, well-articulated proposals written in English. This would disadvantage partners from the Global South who seek to address genuine concerns in the community but are not able to articulate themselves well enough.
My biggest takeaway was that my work as a graduate student could impact the lives of both individuals and populations. As such, I must reflect on my values and practices and proceed with humility.
Harini P. Aiyer is a PhD student at the Department of Community Health and Epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan. She received a Master of Health Science degree from the Johns Hopkins University, USA in 2014. She has spent about 3 years working in Health Communications and Education in India. She is interested in the use of technology for health promotion among marginalized communities to reduce disparities. Her areas of interest include Health Promotion, Patient Education and Community Health Education.