‘Experts’ fuel dangerous development myths
Healthcare workers at an Ebola treatment centre in Freetown, Sierra Leone. African doctors and nurses have been noticeably absent in media coverage of the crisis. Photograph: Michael Duff/AP

Healthcare workers at an Ebola treatment centre in Freetown, Sierra Leone. African doctors and nurses have been noticeably absent in media coverage of the crisis. Photograph: Michael Duff/AP

Ramadhani Abdallah Noor
Throughout the Ebola crisis, pages and pages were written about the good work done by foreign missions like Médecins Sans Frontières and the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Ebola deaths were sensationalised in the media but the African doctors and nurses who shouldered the greatest burden of the death toll were noticeably absent.

It was refreshing to read a few acknowledgements for non-western heroes in Time magazine, but this was not enough. These front line experts deserve to tell their stories and they need support with skills to leverage available opportunities and communication channels. No one can tell the story of Ebola better than those who fought the disease first hand.

At the Second International Conference on Global Food Security in New York, many of the world’s top food security experts convened to discuss everything from genetically modified foods and indigenous crops, to livestock, land use and climate change.

Notably absent on the podiums, though, were faces that looked like mine. Speakers from Africa or elsewhere in the global south were few and far between. The absence of voices rooted in experience came with a lack of nuance and the context these questions need if we want to answer them effectively.

One discussion questioned whether we need animals to feed this world. Concerns were raised about potential increases in carbon footprint and the implications for climate change related to animal consumption.

What nobody mentioned was that in Africa, livestock is more than food; it serves various other socio-economic needs like making manure and biogas energy for cooking and electricity. Most importantly, those of us who spend time with African smallholder farmers realise that animals are a critical part of social structures, economies and culture. In other words, livestock means life. Had one of us been invited to take part in the panel, that point would have been clear.

It’s not just conferences. To date, only 6,5 percent of publications in high impact medical journals are by authors from countries where 90 percent of world’s population lives and the most burden of diseases exist. It’s not surprising that such gaps contribute to misinformed global health priorities, particularly when it comes to poor countries.

Diseases mainly affecting poor countries end up being labelled “neglected”, yet affect more than 1.4 billion of the world’s most impoverished people and cause more than 500,000 deaths annually.

Gross under-representation also permeates global governance structures. The recent World Bank restructuring process has led to the appointment of the senior leadership of global practices. The absence of Africans with the first appointed 16 members was raised in a tense meeting between World Bank president Jim Young Kim and African finance ministers who sit on the bank’s board of governors. The only African member was announced with the last two appointments.

There are, however, efforts in place to alleviate these structural gaps, including career development programs like the ones implemented by the World Bank and African Development Bank. These typically tend to focus on young professionals often not yet on the front line. But since they are resident programmes with extended periods of time away from home, they are less friendly to front line experts in developing countries.

Identifying the right experts for global platforms should not be an act of tokenism. Appointees must have the technical expertise and track record required to be effective, but if such people exist (and they do), why not choose experts who also bring personal experience to the job?

Representation – whether in the media or at international platforms or forums – shapes the world’s responses and provisions of foreign aid. The missing voices from the global south minimise the fact that foreign aid works. Lack of context allows the persistence of sharp divides and missed opportunities even to seemingly well -considered global solutions. For far too long, Africa has been labelled a dark continent, repository of diseases, war and pests. The failure of development experts to engage with the real world continues to minimise context and fuel dangerous myths about development.

Global development issues are becoming increasingly complex. They will require nuanced solutions that draw upon the best front line talent from around the world, especially from underrepresented thinkers.

One of the local heroes of the Ebola crisis is Dr Samuel Kargbo of Sierra Leone Samuel is a colleague of mine on the Aspen Institute’s New Voices Fellowship – a programme that aims to support development experts from the south to have a stronger voice in global conversations.

Nominations for next year’s fellowship closed on 1 November, and those who did not missed a chance to nominate contacts who would have a valuable contribution to make to these conversations. — theguardian.com.

Ramadhani Abdallah Noor is a medical doctor and research associate at the Harvard School of Public Health. Follow @ranoortz on Twitter.

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