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April 25, 2023

Responding To: Georgetown Reflects on CUGH 2023: "Global Health at a Crossroads: Equity, Climate Change and Microbial Threats"

Reimagining Global Health

Amanda Wibben (M’26)

During April 14 through 16 I was privileged to attend the Consortium of Universities for Global Health (CUGH) annual conference here in Washington, DC. The conference was full of rich discussions and ideas from diverse speakers who shared unique international professional experiences and perspectives. Despite the diversity of conversation, nearly all the talks I attended circled back to a common theme, one I hope to keep central as I move forward with my career as a medical student and future physician in global health: the asymmetry of power that plagues most current global health work.

As Patricia Garcia noted in her presentation “Reimagining Global Health in the 21st Century,” “global health” often exists as a construct of high-income countries. Locals providing health care in their homes in the Global South often do not see themselves as doing “global health” work; they are serving their communities, providing care, and implementing infrastructure to improve health access and outcomes. On the other hand, care providers and public health practitioners in the Global North often fail to consider their work as “global health” work, when in fact, all these people are “…improving health and achieving equity in health for all people worldwide.” CUGH speakers were quick to recognize this discrepancy, urging attendees to reclaim global health as a practice in which we can all participate, not one that is unidirectional from the North to the South nor one that perpetuates the savior mentality that has historically underscored global health work.

In these discussion of power asymmetries, CUGH speakers also highlighted current and historic developmental assistance policies and programs intended to aid foreign nations that simultaneously perpetuate a cycle of dependency on the Global North, reinforcing “global health” as a unidirectional construct from the North to the South. This system exists due to centuries of colonization and oppression that robbed the Global South of its resources and its own people. While that is perhaps the subject of another paper all on its own, this history could not be ignored in the discussions of defining and reimagining global health which were held at the conference.

After identifying these issues, CUGH global health practitioners were eager to confront this reality and encourage attendees to think critically about our participation in global health work. Many offered firsthand perspectives as established professionals in developing countries. Olusoji Adeyi, a plenary speaker from Johns Hopkins, urged attendees to look critically at themselves and their work. Using the shortcomings of global health revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Adeyi argued that the field of global health needs to “heal its own toxicities” before expanding into other industries or confronting new problems.

The CUGH conference was an enriching experience, one that helped remind me of the type of physician and global citizen I hope to become. I was pleased that CUGH highlighted diverse voices who were not afraid to be critical, yet each were compelling and inspiring, calling on us all to re-envision and reclaim global health as a force in service of true equity. I was incredibly fortunate to learn from such experiences and thoughtful practitioners, and I would recommend students and professionals engaged in global health attend CUGH events in the future.

Amanda Wibben (M’26) is a medical student at Georgetown University School of Medicine.

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