Decolonising our knowledge

Author: Hajer Hadi

Note: It is not uncommon for a person of colour to feel like they are, most of the time, being second-guessed, overlooked, or not seen as an authoritative figure. Hence, it is particularly shocking when a woman of colour speaks out, because we are the ones most under pressure to be obedient. This pressure has been emphasized in my professional life, and this seminar was further proof. During the seminar, many of my white fellow students, friends and acquaintances overlooked me as one of the event organisers and an authority on the project- yet had no problem deeming my white co-organisers as such. I, as a woman of colour, am unapologetically myself, and I will be heard.

“Decolonisation refers to the undoing of colonialism. Politically, the term describes the achievement of autonomy by those who have been colonised and therefore involves the realization of both independence and self-determination.” Kilomba, Grada. Plantation Memories: Episodes of Everyday Racism, p.146

This is the third and final segment of the article series about our recent seminar, Decolonising Global Health, co-organised with Together Against Racism and the School of Global Health.

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Photo by Nekisa Ghasemi

The field of Global Health is more popular than ever. It addresses the fact that there are huge inequalities in health and access to healthcare worldwide; thus achieving health equity is a goal for many with an interest in this field. Our programme at the University of Copenhagen has a strong focus on the complexities of health, and its relation to social, political, economic, cultural and environmental factors. It has a research-based, cross-disciplinary focus on improving health and equity for all.

However, we believe this seminar was needed because in some ways the programme still promotes a depoliticised and Eurocentric perspective. During first year we learn about topics such as the global burden of disease, the risk of being affected by different environmental hazards, and anthropological approaches to healthcare delivery; without a nuanced exploration of colonialism, neocolonialism and structural racism. Without a space to reflect on these topics within the classroom, we risk perpetuating colonial narratives in our future careers. Furthermore, a lack of representation of people of colour in the curriculum reinforces the dominance of “Western” knowledge as the authoritative voice on global health.

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Photo by Nekisa Ghasemi

By organising this event, we wanted to create a space to critically engage with the colonial history, roots and neocolonial present of the Global Health field; beyond the current level in the programme. We hoped to spark further conversations among students and professors on an “emerging area” in the field, and provide tools and inspiration to facilitate working towards a non-exploitative global health practice that incorporates critical reflection on our knowledge production.

The movement towards decolonising Global Health is undeniable. We were particularly inspired by the Harvard T.H. Chan School  of Public Health’s successful conference “Decolonizing Global Health” and previous events on decolonisation at the University of Oslo, Glasgow University, and University of Leeds. As far as we were aware, such an event had not yet taken place at the University of Copenhagen.

To develop this project we reached out to Together Against Racism, who have experience in organising workshops focused on whiteness and decolonisation. They provided expert advice and facilitated the contact with both Mica Oh and Adrián Groglopo.

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Photo by Nekisa Ghasemi

Speaking of successes, we were surprised and delighted when the seminar became fully-booked in less than 48 hours. We made the decision to increase the number of participants on the list from 60 to 100 –  allowing more to join in but potentially reducing the intimacy of the seminar. We originally wanted to focus on quality of content rather than quantity of participants, and from the feedback it certainly seems that there is a desire for spaces where participants can discuss the issues raised in a small-group environment. We’ve taken this on board and will prioritise workshop-style learning in any future events on this topic.

The seminar focused on foundational concepts such as structural racism and epistemic responsibility, as discussed in the previous two articles in this series.

Some participants expected more content explicitly related to Global Health, and found that the structure of the seminar made it difficult to distill a coherent message. Others expressed how necessary this event was and how displeased they were with the perspective on health that was presented in their studies. Our own experience as co-organisers is that for future events we should facilitate better communication in advance about the content of lectures and workshops, as well as a stricter adherence to the agenda on the day.

A surprising aspect of the event was the small group of protesters who appeared outside the venue on day 1; representing a far-right group that objected to Mica’s teaching on structural racism. While initially alarming (given that they chose to photograph participants as they entered the venue), in retrospect we find this illuminates the resistance that exists to voices questioning and critiquing the status quo in the university.

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Photo by Nekisa Ghasemi

In summary, decolonising global health is not just a series of checkboxes or adding more women of colour to the curriculum. It is not the same as “diversity”, and should not be reduced to a buzzword.

Decolonisation is an ongoing process of learning and unlearning a multitude of constructs. When working on research projects or programmes, we need to ask ourselves; who is benefiting from this research? Is it the local population or the author? Whose voice is authoritative? Whose perspective is placed at the centre?

While some participants loved Mica’s emotive technique, others preferred Adrian’s more familiar academic approach; feedback was incredibly mixed but always constructive. One thing the majority of participants seemed to agree on was the importance of having these conversations, and a desire to see more events on this topic in future. The EOGH Team is excited to take the next steps on this journey, and hope we inspired other students to organise similar events and create spaces for discourse on decolonisation in their own programmes.

Acknowledgement:

This event was generously supported by SL-Fonden and the School of Global Health. Your help and support is truly appreciated. We want to extend a sincere thank you for the interest, support and participation in the seminar. Thank you to the School of Global Health for being open to having this dialogue with students and professors.

“Imagine this scenario. A couple of newly minted Master of Public Health graduates from an African university, say in Rwanda, land in Washington DC for a 2-week visit. They visit a few hospitals, speak to a few health care workers and policymakers, read a few reports, and write up a nice assessment of the US health system with several recommendations on how to fix the issues they saw. They submit their manuscript to the American Journal of Public Health. Can you imagine [the] journal even sending it out for review? Even if the paper got published somewhere, would US health researchers take it seriously? … Clearly, it’s an impossible scenario yet American graduates land in low-income countries to advise them on global health issues all the time. I met an African expert recently and she expressed her frustration about how American “kids” with little or no experience come all the time to “advise” her government on what to do about health.Madhukar Pai

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