Tapping Our Trans-Local Potential for Change

Featured Speakers of the evening - Back row: Marj Ratel, Ashok Mathur, Dr. Shafique Pirani, Mohammad Zaman, Lyren Chiu, Derek Agyapong-Poku, Jerry Spiegel, Steven Pi. Front row: Shaheen Nanji, Ajay Puri, Dr. Kojo Assante, Joanna Ashworth

This post was written by Shaheen Nanji, Project Co-Director; Douglas Olthof, Project Researcher; and Chloë Straw, Project Research Assistant.

On March 16, 2011 the Engaging Diasporas in Development Project convened the second in its series of public dialogues. The dialogue was entitled Improving Global Health and covered three core themes: (1) the unique skills and experiences of diasporas influencing health; (2) how these experiences are transforming health practices and systems; and (3) tapping the current and potential impacts in Canada and beyond.

The first session opened with an overview of global health by Dr. Jerry Spiegel, an associate professor at the Liu Institute for Global Issues and UBC’s School of Population and Public Health. Dr. Spiegel explained that international health becomes global health when the causes and consequences of health issues circumvent, undermine or are oblivious to the boundaries of the state and thus beyond the capacity of any one nation to address. He also spoke of the huge disparities between the need and the capacity to deliver health services, speaking to the reality that the majority of health care providers (many of whom are from the Global South) are in North America and Europe while the burden of disease is overwhelmingly in Africa and Asia.

With these important points in mind, Ayumi Mathur brought participants into small groups, asking them to consider and discuss what health means to them as individuals. Further adding to this focus on health at the personal level, the group heard from a diverse group of storytellers.

Doctors and patients at the Royal Columbian Hospital in Uganda. Click to enlarge.

The first was Dr. Shafique Pirani who was born in Uganda and left at age 15 at the “invitation” of Idi Amin. He trained in Canada as a pediatric orthopedic surgeon and returned to Uganda 23 years later to see his old house, and upon seeing the need, began a CIDA-funded project to address club foot in Uganda. His remarkable story has been the subject of numerous media interviews and articles, including one of our previous blog posts.

The next storyteller was Steven Pi who was the president of the UBC Chinese Varsity Club in May 2008 when an earthquake struck the city of Szechuan, killing almost 100,000 people. The UBC group held a fundraising dinner to raise money for victims of the earthquake. Their fundraising efforts were so successful that the group was inspired to show how young adults can make a large difference in the world. They formed Hands Across the World, a Vancouver-based non-profit working to raise awareness of the serious issues plaguing the world today.

A patient at the Korle-Bu NeuroscienceFoundation. Click to enlarge.

Next was Marj Ratel, a Vancouver-based neuroscience nurse who worked with her Ghanaian partners in Canada and Ghana and with a multinational team to make the Korle-Bu Neuroscience Foundation project successful, providing medical support for brain and spinal injuries and disease to the people of Ghana. Marj recounted the story of the high commissioner of Ghana’s visit to Vancouver when she showed him all the beds being donated for the hospital in Ghana. He asked what was wrong with them and when told they were in good working order, he was astonished.

Derek Agyapong-Poku then told the audience that being a part of Korle-Bu has been a dream come true for him. He had been searching for a way to give back to Africa and with the knowledge he gained in administration and financial management, he is now the President of Excellence in Africa, the active wing of the Korle-Bu Neuroscience Foundation in Ghana.

A patient and his mother at the Korle-Bu NeuroscienceFoundation. Click to enlarge.

Bangladeshi-Canadian Mohammad Zaman talked about arriving in Canada in 1980 as a graduate student at the University of Manitoba. He completed his dissertation in Bangladesh looking at flood displacement and is now the Executive Director of Bangladesh Calling for Climate Justice. Bangladesh is the epicenter of climate disaster, where between 30 and 75 million people could be displaced. He instructed the group that when you talk about health you must talk about vulnerability, including that which is created by environmental factors.

Finally, Dr. Lyren Chiu, founder of the Canadian Research Institute of Spirituality and Healing, spoke of integrated health care and the need to introduce other concepts beyond those offered by western medicine.

A lively discussion followed drawing attention to such themes as the unique abilities of members of the diaspora in performing development work, the realities of “brain drain” in the Global South and the need to overcome the “us” and “them” phenomenon that inhibits action and confuses identity.

The evening ended with a summary of key thoughts and themes by Ashok Mathur, Director of the Centre for Innovation in Culture and the Arts in Canada, who left participants with a quotation to consider in the context of the evening’s discussion: “All we want to do is get as far away as possible, but we can’t”. This quote, taken from a Japanese woman stuck within the 30km radius of the volatile Fukushima reactor following the tsunami in Japan, reminds us that although we might want to get away from issues of health and responsibility, we can’t.

To read more, view photos and watch the video of the public dialogue on Improving Global Health, please visit the dialogue page on our website.

The next dialogue, “Education for Development” will be held at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue (580 West Hastings) on May 18th, 2011. This dialogue will showcase the many ways that diaspora-led efforts support education as an engine for change. Visit our website for more information and to register for the dialogue.

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