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Global Health: Medical Humanitarianism (Kathleen Vongsathorn)

This seminar will explore the history of global medical humanitarianism, through the case study of Africa. We will explore continuities and changes in medical humanitarianism, from its missionary foundations to the present, with particular focus on the priorities and agendas that have shaped medical humanitarian intervention. We will also discuss the extent to which these agendas were successfully or unsuccessfully fulfilled, from the perspective local recipients and foreign humanitarians. Students are welcome to contact the tutor for further readings, whether to expand on any of the topics covered, or learn about a different geographical context.

Seminar Questions

• What priorities have shaped medical mission and medical humanitarianism? Whose priorities have these been?

• Are the agendas that shape medical humanitarianism consistent even when the medical interventions are different? What do interventions into leprosy, HIV/AIDS, maternal and child welfare, and polio, have in common? How do they differ?

• What continuities are there between colonial medical humanitarianism and contemporarily medical humanitarianism? What changes?

• Why have the consequences of medical humanitarianism often differed from humanitarians' intended outcomes?

Required Readings:

The following are blog entries written by a professor from Columbia who worked in Sierra Leone for two months during the 2014 Ebola outbreak.

Michael Jennings, ‘“A Matter of Vital Importance”: The Place of Medical Mission in Maternal and Child Healthcare in Tanganyika, 1919-39’, in David Hardiman, (ed.), Healing Bodies, Saving Souls: Medical Missions in Asia and Africa (2006), pp.227-50. scanned chapter

Elisha Renne, The Politics of Polio in Northern Nigeria (2010), Ch. 3: ‘Politics and Polio in Nigeria’, pp.33-50. e-book, one reader at a time!

Kathleen Vongsathorn, “Public Health or Public Good? Humanitarian Agendas and the Treatment of Leprosy in Uganda,” in Bronwen Everill and Josiah Kaplan (eds), The History and Practice of Humanitarian Intervention and Aid in Africa (2013), pp.43-66. e-book

William Easterly, The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good (2007), Ch. 7: The Healers: Triumph and Tragedy, pp.211-36. scanned chapter

Further Readings: The Case Study of Female Circumcision

Key: Lynn Thomas, Politics of the Womb: Women, Reproduction, and the State in Kenya (Berkeley, 2003), especially Ch. 1: Imperial Populations and "Women's Affairs", pp.21-51. e-book

Key: Christine Walley, 'Searching for "Voices": Feminism, Anthropology, and the Global Debates over Female Genital Operations', Cultural Anthropology, 12.3 (1997), pp.405-38. e-journal


Susan Pedersen, ‘National Bodies, Unspeakable Acts: The Sexual Politics of Colonial Policy-making’, The Journal of Modern History, 63.4 (1991), pp.647-80. e-journal

Janice Boddy, ‘Womb as Oasis: The Symbolic Context of Pharaonic Circumcision in Rural Northern Sudan’, American Ethnologist, 9.4 (1982), pp.682-98. e-journal