Conducting Global Health Research in the Global South: Challenges and Considerations

BY ANJUM SULTANA

Reporter Anjum Sultana recently sat down with Jesse Jenkinson, a second year PhD Student at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health to discuss the power, politics and privilege inherent in the Global Health field and the challenges of conducting research on the ground in the Global South.

AS: What is your academic background and what are some of the things that drive you and make you passionate about global health?

JJ: I’m a PhD student currently in the Social and Behavioural Health Sciences Division at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. I’m also doing two collaborative programs – one in global health and one in public health policy. What drives me and makes me passionate about global health, like a lot of people in the field, is travelling and being exposed to new cultures and ways of being.

AS: How did your past academic training during undergrad influence your interest in global health?

JJ: I ended up finding an organization that did some work in global health that I thought was really interesting. It was a medical humanitarian organization that brings children from countries in the Global South for heart surgery. These are countries where they wouldn’t be able to get heart surgeries because there aren’t the resources or the infrastructures in their home countries. That was my first foray in global health and understanding the different politics, power and dynamics that impact health in different parts of the world. That kind of rooted my interest in travelling to the African continent and East Africa specifically because a lot of the children I worked with were from Zanzibar so I really wanted to go to that area of the world. So I went back to school and finished my degree. I finished the year doing a field semester abroad program through McGill.

AS: How was your experience, were you working on the ground?

JJ: It was a very different experience coming back with a Masters and having a more critical perspective. It really gave me the opportunity to be very reflexive about the program itself, what the role of the program was in all the places we went, and how the program impacted the communities we visited. I ran workshops where we discussed the issues people were facing as they pursued this course. One topic was around the ethics of taking photos and the impact that has on yourself taking the photos, on the people you are taking pictures of and the people you are sharing these pictures with back home.

AS: What is your doctoral research right now and how did you come to that particular topic?

JJ: Currently my project will be working on or working with ex-LRA women who were soldiers in the Lord’s Resistance Army that operated in Northern Uganda from the mid 1980s to mid 2000s. I’m really interested in how these women are dealing with barriers they faced with reintegrating back into their communities. A lot of soldiers who came back went through reintegration programs and reception centres. At first, in the very beginning, they did not include women. They did not recognize that fact that women were soldiers and it wasn’t really seen as an issue that had to be dealt with. The women also all had different experiences and they weren’t a homogenous group by any means. In my work, I’m really interested in how these women are helping themselves when the programs have failed to help them. I’m mostly interested in the positive side. All the research that has been done on women in Northern Uganda has looked at women as victims and I think that’s a really important perspective. However, women’s identities both within the LRA and now outside of the LRA are very complicated. I think painting a picture of young women as only victims is problematic and there isn’t really much research on women as individuals with agency or power. That’s also an important story to tell.

AS: What have been some the challenges in conducting research in the Global South more broadly?

JJ: One critique is that there is so much research coming out of the Global North about the Global South so the countries and people of the Global South are being used as objects of research. The most important part of doing global health research is to be reflexive, to understand your own positionality, your role, your power, your privilege,the politics of doing research in the Global South, and doing the best to mitigate harm within these power dynamics that oppress some and privilege others. You really need to go where the work needs to happen. You need to answer research questions that are important to communities.

AS: Is there a way that your research is going to bridge the gap between both community development and policy work?

JJ: I’m doing a policy collaborative program to better understand how policy works. It’s a very complicated process. Evidence is not an unbiased thing. Policy is largely based on certain types of evidence from research conducted in certain ways often with an already biased research questions. I want to learn from women who are finding ways to improve their health and use their knowledge to inform and adapt programs. I’m really hoping to work at the community and policy interface and really help become a bridge between the two. Speaking with a few people in Gulu who worked for large organizations, one of their main critiques was that a lot of PhD researchers come in and do research for their PhD dissertation and they leave and often never come back or the organizations never hear from them again. The results of their research are never disseminated back to the communities. I think that bigger research bodies have caught on to this and there is a larger push towards knowledge translation and exchange but there needs to be more research on what types of techniques are most effective depending on the context.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Anjum Sultana is a Masters of Public Health student specializing in Social and Behavioural Health Sciences with an emphasis in Global Health at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. You can follow her on twitter at @anjumsultana.