International Public Health: What is It?

By: Jenny Gilbert

When I tell people I study public health, there are two images that usually come to their minds: a doctor or an aid worker in emergency relief abroad. While both of these tracks of work can definitely be involved in public health, studying the health of populations is a lot broader than the movies make it look. Today I’m going to focus on the second one – the idea that public health is purely humanitarian. While non-profit organizations make up a huge portion of public health, for-profit researchers, governmental figures, consultants, and many others are also key players in health around the world. This post will largely focus on international health efforts, though its concepts are relevant to domestic projects as well.

While I was working on a research project last summer, I was surprised to hear one of the doctors mention her concerns of organizations that saw public health as purely charity and volunteering. We’ve moved so far beyond that image of a doctor or aid worker coming in with money and fixing everything, she explained, adding that communities can take ownership of projects by making them sustainable enough that outside money is no longer needed. Her words struck a cord. Of the many NGOs that exist in the world, relatively few that I’ve seen managed to circumvent heavy corruption, especially in poorer regions of the world. One of my biggest concerns on college campuses today is that students in volunteering and fundraising groups sometimes do not understand the NGOs they are donating to well enough to know if the funding is going toward activities which will actually help others. Public health projects don’t just need frontline workers. They also need people in the background who are grounded in research, operations, finances, and a variety of technical skills to keep large projects running smoothly.

Only so many people with these types of backgrounds will be willing to work for purely humanitarian reasons. Very few people enter public health without wanting to help others, but it’s rarely easy or effective to send foreigners abroad to countries and areas they don’t know well for extended periods of time. Rather than sending someone who both doesn’t fit in well and may build tensions, many programs today are focusing on hiring only within the area where their project takes place while sending foreigners to check in. People often argue that foreigners should not be involved at all outside of their countries, but without oversight of where the money goes, especially in poorer areas, corruption will likely occur. The aim, then, should not be for public health projects to make the highly educated into heroes on center stage, but rather quiet teachers and operations workers behind the curtains until the project is no longer their own. In an ideal world donations will be temporary until the project becomes permanent, and those who kept it running smoothly might not have taken photos with a “saved” foreign child in their arms, but will know of the lives they’ve supported when they see the results speak for themselves. 

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