Campus & Community

Conference examines values and global health

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Humanities, medicine, public health explore common ground in improving global health

In an age where the health of those in one country can affect that of others around the world, scholars from Harvard, Boston University, and Northwestern University gathered at Harvard’s Barker Center last week to examine the importance of values in driving efforts to address global health concerns.

The conference, “Values and Moral Experiences in Global Health: Bridging the Local and Global,” examined the increasing view of global health improvement as necessary not just from an economic development, disease-centered focus but also from the standpoint of human rights and social justice.

The conference, which ran from Thursday to Saturday (May 24-26), brought authorities from a wide variety of fields — from anthropology to religion to medical ethics to infectious disease — to the Barker Center’s Thompson Room.

Friday’s opening session was introduced by Harvard Anthropology Department Chairman and Rabb Professor of Anthropology Arthur Kleinman, director of the Harvard Humanities Center Homi Bhabha, history of science professor Allan Brandt, associate provost for global health at Boston University Gerald Keusch, and senior lecturer in medical anthropology at Northwestern University Kearsley Stewart, who is also a David Bell Fellow at the Center for Population and Development Studies at the Harvard School of Public Health.

In his opening remarks, Brandt said that values and how they drive medical and policy decisions are an area where the humanities can make an important contribution.

“Obviously, it’s long past time to take a searching look at values and viewpoints in health and medicine,” Brandt said. “There really is a lot at stake. Ultimately, what’s at stake is to find moral approaches to practices that will be humane and just.”

The examination of the application of values to global health is particularly apt, Keusch said, because technology has reached a point where some believe many of the most serious global health problems are solvable. Values will help create a structure for action, he said.

The event included presentations and discussions of ethics and morality in relation to religion and global health, global health governance, and global health research; economics and global health; anthropology as a bridge between the local and the global in global health; as well as two keynote speeches and a closing roundtable discussion on how to integrate values in global health governance.

In a presentation Friday morning, Kleinman pointed out that it is critical to consider the reality on the ground in local communities when thinking about global health interventions. Those local realities — and the moral choices people make behind them — are as important as widely held global ethical values in understanding problems.

“Ethics … is a hugely important component in how we approach values but is insufficient,” Kleinman said. “We speak about the importance of justice, but we live in an unjust world.”

Paul Farmer, the Maude and Lillian Presley Professor of Social Medicine, illustrated the potential of individual moral choices, speaking of a letter he received from a U.S. soldier posted in Fallujah, Iraq, that included a donation to Farmer’s nonprofit organization, Partners In Health, for its work in Haiti.

The soldier, it turns out, had fled Haiti in the early 1990s with his mother when he was a child, leaving the impoverished island nation on a boat and being picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard. After being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, he eventually settled in the United States and joined the military in hopes of becoming an American citizen. Farmer marveled that, even while living in dangerous circumstances in Iraq, the soldier still thought to reach out to those less fortunate than himself.

Farmer contrasted the soldier’s moral choices with those in his own profession, who sometimes criticize efforts to feed the hungry or treat AIDS in poor countries as doomed to failure. Farmer also cited Abraham Lincoln and the writings of a Christian minister imprisoned by the Nazis, Dietriech Bonhoeffer, in saying that passion for social justice is needed today.

“We really need some passion for social justice if we’re to reinvigorate global health,” Farmer said.