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Conference: The Public Good, Planning & Internationalism in African Health, 25-28 September 2023

Posted by C3W Admin on May 29 2024

Sarah Howard

Many months of planning and organising came to fruition when an event co-organised by Connecting Three Worlds – The Public Good, Planning & Internationalism in African Health – finally took place in South Africa. An oral history symposium that brought together senior African health professionals and an inter-disciplinary group of academic researchers, the aim of the event was to discuss the past and present of public health and health systems in Africa.

We were lucky to host distinguished guests from Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe and the WHO – although we sadly missed the presence of Ghanaian colleagues, due to visa processing issues – who brought a huge depth and range of experience and expertise to the event. Held in the Dinokeng Region in the beautiful and peaceful location of the Intundla Lodge, the event was co-organised and funded with the ERC Project ‘Universal Health Coverage and the Public Good in Africa’, led by Prof. Ruth Prince at the University of Oslo; the Wellcome Trust ‘Health Systems in History’ Project, led by Prof. Martin Gorsky at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; and the Norwegian Research Council Project ‘Witness Seminars in Modern Medical History’, led by Prof. Christoph Gradmann at the University of Oslo.


Sessions included both full group discussions and smaller, more focused parallel sessions, bringing together clinicians who starting practising medicine in the 1960s, such as Professor Esther Mwaikambo, with those who qualified more recently, such as Professor Tivani Mashamba-Thompson, who is at the cutting edge of point-of-care diagnostics for underserved populations in resource-limited settings. Some participants have primarily worked in and with rural populations throughout their career, such as Shitaye Alemu, Professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Gonder, where she first started teaching in 1984, while others have used their expertise to serve international organisations across Africa and beyond, such as Professor Evarist Njelesani  and Dr Rufaro Chatora, both of whom have had long and distinguished careers with the WHO. Befitting the interest of the Connecting 3 Worlds project in global connections and professional networks in the socialist world, many of the participants undertook their medical training in socialist countries both within and outside Africa, including in Cuba, Bulgaria, and the USSR.

Discussions traced commonalities and historical shifts in public health in different regions and states across Africa, from the transition between colonial and independence periods, to the Cold War dynamics that shaped healthcare in the continent, to the rise of non-governmental, multilateral and philanthropic bodies from the 1990s. At the same time, the format facilitated lively debate on the differences and divergences between national health systems over the course of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. To give just one example, the session on ‘Socialist Healthcare and Its Afterlives’, chaired by Dr Peter Mangesho raised critical questions about the legacies and afterlives – or otherwise – of socialism in terms of equity in primary healthcare; concepts of solidarity and sacrifice; and priority-setting in different systems.

As we all know, informal chats over meals and drinks can be just as illuminating as the sessions themselves at these events, and many participants found old friends or made new ones, as they reflected on shared experiences. Academic researchers from a range of disciplines and institutions in Africa, Europe and North America were also able to conduct interviews with individuals or small groups, and to make informal personal connections, which we are sure will bear fruit in the future. In collaboration with Medical and Health Humanities Africa (MHHA), the final day brought together a group of early career scholars based in South Africa with participants and other academics for an illuminating discussion on how best to develop research questions and agendas in health with colleagues from clinical, humanities and social science backgrounds.

Transcription of the full event is ongoing, which will result in collected proceedings to be published, provisionally, in late 2024. The proceedings will be available as a fully open access digital publication, with each session available for download separately for ease of use. Various other collaborative outputs from the event are in the pipeline, from a journal special issue to future events, publications and networks, so watch this space in 2024 for more information.


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