At the 2017 Sussex Global Health and Development Conference, CORBIS Advisor Dr Arianne Shahvisi delivered a talk entitled A Philosopher’s Thoughts on Neglected Tropical Diseases, exploring a selection of philosophical notions underpinning the term ‘Neglected Tropical Diseases’ (NTDs), such as Edward Said’s Orientalism and the politics of neglect. She is currently a lecturer in Medical Ethics & Humanities at Brighton and Sussex Medical School, having previously studied at both Cambridge and Oxford universities as well as working at the American University of Beirut.
Alongside her academic work, Arianne takes her role as a public ethicist very seriously and engages in campus and community activism, focussing on gender, race, migration, and academic freedom. She has written commentary on these issues for the New Statesman, Jacobin, Open Democracy, and Truthout, and was awarded the Kamal Salibi Award for services to academic freedom in 2015.
Dr Shahvisi will appear at the upcoming 2018 Sussex Global Health & Development Conference, giving a keynote address on Sunday 29th April entitled ‘Resisting the Co-opting of Women’s Rights and Seeking Intersectionality in Global Health’. She kindly took some time to answer a few questions regarding last year’s conference and what to expect from her talk this year.
What was your experience of being part of the conference last year and what was the most positive point you took from it?
There was a real buzz at the CORBIS conference last year, and it was wonderful to see so many students attending on a weekend. In my talk, I offered a critique of the term “neglected tropical disease”. Moments earlier, I had learned that one of the people who coined the term was in the audience, so that was probably the most memorable moment of the conference for me!
In what ways do you think Edward Said’s theories on Orientalism manifest themselves in today’s attitudes towards the ‘tropical’ in NTDs? How have these ideas managed to remain prevalent?
Orientalism describes the “Othering” effect of representations of Eastern people and cultures. The cultures and people of the “Middle East” (itself a troubled term!) are portrayed as inferior to those of the West, yet also exoticised and romanticised as objects for Western consumption. I think the word “tropical” in NTDs does something similar: the people of “tropical” regions are Othered, and the specific form this takes is that their misfortune is attributed to perceived excesses/abnormalities of climate, landscape, and biology. This tends to hide the much more determinative effect of colonialism and neo-colonialism.
As the institutions training and forming the next generation of medical practitioners, what do you think could be done in Western medical schools in order to combat the effects of such approaches? Whose responsibility should this be?
To start with, we need to teach accurate, explanatory histories of how the world came to be as divided as it is today, and how health possibilities came to be so unfairly distributed. This will enable students to engage with global health in a much more critical way. Instead of thinking of themselves as “saviours” when they go away on electives, or volunteer abroad, we need to encourage them to understand the limitations of such work, and to understand their contribution as a form of reparation, rather than as charity. I feel that the responsibility falls to people like myself, who work in medical schools to enhance the core curriculum. It’s also up the core curriculum team to make room for this kind of teaching. Secondary schools should also be preparing students by covering more relevant, if provocative, topics in their history lessons, as well as preparing students for critical thinking.
Could you tell us a little about your upcoming talk this year?
My talk this year takes on a completely different topic. Much of my research relates to gender, and I’ll be contrasting productive and non-productive ways of engaging with gender in global health. Gender is one of those things that can easily be co-opted into a box-ticking exercise, and I want to urge those working in global health towards a more sincere commitment to the health and wellbeing of marginalised groups.