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Expanding space for social sciences and humanities in discussions about global health in Africa

The Leiden University Network for Health in Africa (LUNHA) aims to shift the focus of global health to be more about justice, fairness, and inclusion. LUNHA wants to create a broader space for social sciences and humanities in discussions about global health in Africa. By collaborating with various partners, including civil society, policymakers, and academia in Africa, LUNHA plans to lead a critical discussion and change the direction of global health research.

Environmental challenges threaten Africa's well-being and development

Climate change, the loss of biodiversity, the threat of pandemics, and environmental problems are causing serious challenges in Africa. These issues are not just theoretical; they're real and could undo the progress made in health, well-being, and development over the years. Unusual heatwaves, extreme weather events, pollution, and food shortages are making life difficult for communities. Additionally, the loss of plant and animal species, air pollution, and environmental damage are endangering the ecosystems that provide clean air, water, food, and other essential resources for future generations.

Technology and Global Health: Unintended consequences and the need for change

At the same time, technology is being used more and more to solve these problems, but not enough attention is paid to how this affects existing inequalities. To prepare for the challenges ahead, we need to change how we think about health and well-being. Global health, as a field, has been around for about 20 years but has faced criticism for not addressing the root causes of health inequalities and injustice. Instead, it often reinforces existing inequalities and power imbalances.

LUNHA started at the beginning of 2023 as a multidisciplinary collaboration - in the context of the Social Sciences and Humanities Sectorplannen - between the African Studies Centre and the Law, History, and Anthropology departments at Leiden University to support research on some of the university's main priorities. Miriam Waltz, Assistant Professor Gender Justice and Health Technologies, Sheila Varadan, Assistant Professor of Children’s Rights and Global Health, and Sara de Wit, Assistant Professor in African Studies and Histories of Global Health give shape to this new hub. What are their ambitions with the LUNHA?

Miriam Waltz

Miriam Waltz - Assistant Professor in Gender Justice and Health Technologies

'As an anthropologist, my work for the hub will be grounded in ethnographic approaches and will involve research that builds on work I have conducted in Kenya and South Africa. A holistic point of view, that takes into account multiple intersecting inequalities, is very important in anthropology, and is also a key orientation for LUNHA. I will work closely with communities living with different forms of pollution and exposure to map out the ways in which they are affected by these in terms of health, but also the ways in which they adapt to, accommodate, or resist such challenges.

Beyond our own research, it is important to us that LUNHA truly functions as a ‘hub,’ bringing together scholars from different disciplines, from within the university and beyond, but also that we work in partnership with civil society organisations, activist groups, and policymakers. We especially aim to work in dialogue with individuals and groups from the African continent, to ensure that our work is relevant in that context, as well as inclusive, and critical. We will focus on building such networks and connections, and we are very open to input from outsiders to shape the direction of our thinking and research. Because at our core we are trying to instigate ‘re-orientations,’ this also applies to the flows of information and ownership.’

Sheila Varadan - Assistant Professor of Children’s Rights and Global Health

‘As a human rights and child rights legal scholar, I am interested in disentangling the rights of today’s generations from the justice and equity owed to generations of tomorrow. With Africa already named the ‘youngest’ continent in the world, the question of how far we should go to preserve the efficacy of antimicrobial drugs (AMR) for future generations is already being tested. Drawing on my work on antimicrobial resistance, and the need for a ‘just transition’ towards a sustainable and equitable future with AMR, I consider how actions (and inaction) today can directly impact the survival and health of future generations.

I also explore how actions taken for the benefit of future generations, such as restricting access to antibiotics (i.e. banning over-the-counter sales of antibiotics) can directly impact the lives and livelihoods of generations today, particularly where antibiotics play an integral role in compensating for weak healthcare systems, or poor sanitation. Navigating the challenges of existential planetary crises against concepts of intergenerational justice and human rights, will be integral to my work in the LUNHA.’

Sara de Wit

Sara de Wit - Assistant Professor in African Studies and Histories of Global Health

‘Trained in (historical) anthropology, African Studies and Science and Technology Studies, my approach to the LUNHA is to open up new spaces for (unexpected) knowledge encounters, as health and well-being mean different things to different people. Yet, this is not how the global health ‘sector’ (underpinned by frameworks such as the Sustainable Development Goals) conceives of health, which is still largely dominated by biomedical approaches to health. We should therefore have a commitment to make the humanities and critical social sciences more visible in the field of global health and allow for broader conceptualisations. Moreover, in the pursuit of tackling global health futures, important critical histories of global health and global health interventions – that can be characterised by increased forms of ‘technicisation’ – tend to be overlooked.

It is therefore vital to explore and make visibile histories of global health interventions and shifting conceptualisations of health. One way to fruitfully incorporate historical knowledge is to reorient histories towards the shifting meanings of global health over time, and how these have manifested in particular knowledge encounters and projects and on the ground. The LUNHA hub strives to be a vibrant space for a multiplicity of encounters, in which different epistemologies and ontologies are celebrated and brought into meaningful conversations, or even challenging ‘interdisciplinary equivocations’. We need innovative and new critical tools from the human and social sciences to account for newly emerging planetary entanglements and global health challenges.’

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