- Introduction:Developing Health Care in Severely Resource-Constrained Settings
This symposium of Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics catalogues the experiences of health care providers working in resource-poor settings, with stories written by those on the frontlines of global health. Two commentaries by esteemed scholars Renee Fox and Byron and Mary-Jo Good accompany the narratives, helping situate the lived experiences of global health practitioners within the frameworks of sociology and medical anthropology respectively.
The burgeoning interest in global health among students, health science trainees, clinical practitioners, social entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and government officials is often linked with substantial moral claims. People working in global health often start with the rhetorical premise that each and every human being, regardless of economic, social, or political circumstances that lie beyond his or her control, deserves equal access to quality health care services. This is a bold position at risk of trivialization, in part because the sentiment is so commonplace among global health equity activists.
Despite this relatively recent global outpouring of solidarity and concern, billions of poor people still lack access to basic health services. All too often, interventions that perpetuate existing trade practices and market economics are promoted, usually to the detriment of the poor. As our good friend and colleague Arthur Kleinman warns:
The irrelevance of ethics can be seen when considering universal ethical formulations of justice and equity that do not begin with the local moral conditions of poor people, those experiencing the systematic injustice of higher disease rates and fewer health-care resources because of their positioning at the bottom of local social structures of power.(1999, p.72)
If we are serious about reducing health disparities globally, we must be prepared to mobilize resources in Africa just as we would in the United States or in Europe. If we fetishize cost-effective (read: low-cost) interventions for the poor, we must ask whether we use the same metrics in other situations. In other words, we must always strive to address the fundamental structural and social causes of health inequity.
We believe that global health must avoid the "iron cage of rationality," to use sociologist Max Weber's words. One unanticipated consequence of the growth of global health as a field is that the "audit culture"—which encourages accountability and effectiveness—can at times reinforce power differentials between donors (whether government agencies or multilateral foundations) and their intended beneficiaries. Agendas are often set not by community members but by global health leaders who rarely demonstrate sustained commitments to a local community. [End Page 73]
As the guest editors of this issue, we hope to recapture the soul of global health work through the art of storytelling. Narratives, even when presented as raw and unrefined as many within this issue, remind us of the immense challenges—both programmatic and moral—involved in this work. The profound scarcity of resources available to health providers in poor countries forces ethical questions on doctors, nurses, pharmacists, social workers, and other health care workers, who make difficult choices every day about what to do with the few resources they have. These are the ethical dilemmas of mortal dramas at their most dire. Global health work demands of its practitioners an alternate mode of audit than academic methodologies can provide. Narratives return us to the basic human commitments that led many of us to this work, and they remind us to use words like equality and justice meaningfully.
The narratives that follow offer unmitigated perspectives on the working lives of global health practitioners. They highlight the translation of the moral and programmatic challenges of health care delivery into real choices: for example, between a visiting surgeon's desire to treat a patient and his capacity (or really incapacity) to provide follow-up care. They acknowledge the necessity of interdisciplinary cooperation in resource-constrained settings, as well as the difficulties in collaborating across cultures and continents. Most importantly, they make the claim that a newborn in distress in a tent in Port-au-Prince merits the same resources and attention as one in Boston, and that his or her death merits the same indignation. They demonstrate the radical solidarity inherent in the...