Six Myths About Development and Global Health (and Books that Debunk Them) 21 April 2017
The pattern repeats, as in
Groundhog Day: you get invited to a meeting of leading lights—a great privilege, you might say. Once there, you wonder how you managed once again to get roped into spending several hours of your life listening to platitudes, regurgitated ad nauseam, that would not withstand even the most cursory fact-check. The trouble is, the thoughtful rigor you admire so much makes little impact in the age of dazzling slogans, à la Mad Men. But take heart: other people hate this tendency as much as you do, and some authors have made it their mission to dispel the myths that have taken root in the sphere of development and global health. Here are a few examples that you could add to your wish list for Sant Jordi, or World Book Day. Myth #1: Until recently, women’s contribution to science was minor
And the only counterexample that comes to mind is Marie Curie—undoubtedly an exception. Is it true that there haven’t been many women in science? Or have we simply overlooked them? Clearly, you’ll never find something you’re not looking for. But if you open your eyes, you might discover, say, Katherine Johnson, and end up watching a great film about her achievements and those of her female colleagues. Rachel Ignotofsky has painstakingly identified, researched and illustrated the lives of Johnson and 49 other women whose scientific contributions, we now know, changed the world. And that’s just the beginning.
Is it true that there haven’t been many women in science?
Rachel Ignotofsky: Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World. Penguin Random House. 2016. Myth #2: Solving climate change is up to politicians
Of course—and who controls the politicians? Power, like energy, is neither created nor destroyed; it is only transferred. Gaia Vince sets out to show that we humans are running on a treadmill of survival: our actions modify the earth’s ecosystem, and then we rack our brains to adapt to the harmful effects of these actions on the environment. Sure, some alternatives—nuclear energy, genetically modified food, etc.—go hand in hand with powerful economic interests, but Vince presents all the pros and cons and lets you draw your own conclusions (if you aren’t too lazy, that is).
Power, like energy, is neither created nor destroyed; it is only transferred
Gaia Vince: Adventures in the Anthropocene: A Journey into the Heart of the Planet We Made. Milkweed. 2014. Myth #3: Chronic diseases are only an issue in developed countries
This is a good one: it takes quite an effort to ignore the constant deluge of epidemiological data in recent years so that you can hold on to this belief, which has remarkable staying power. It makes sense when you realise that debunking this myth would require columnists and commentators of all stripes to leave their ideological comfort zone—so they don’t. Charles Agyemang—one of our visiting lecturers—is eager to enlighten you on this matter.
Ama de-Graft Aikins and Charles Agyemang: Chronic Non-communicable Diseases in Low and Middle-income Countries. CABI. 2015. Myth #4: Advances in development have been poor to non-existent
This one’s even better. The good Max Roser has squandered his patience and acumen analysing data and creating exquisite visualisations that demonstrate—with hard facts—that the world has never been better. And to what end? The doomsayers just look the other way. We’d rather rant and rave about what’s wrong with the world, about how little we matter to the people in charge, and about the amount of resources needed to end the inexhaustible evils of the world—so that’s precisely what we do. If a Nobel laureate in economics spells out the facts for us, will we pay more attention? Unlikely.
Angus Deaton: The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality. Princeton University Press. 2015. Myth #5: The biggest challenges are structural and small actions are useless
To borrow a phrase from Adnan Hyder: think globally, act locally
Okay, Jean-Louis is an old acquaintance of mine. Okay, his book and the way he talks remind you more of Jorge Bucay and not the expert in HIV and public health that he is. But look again: what he and the Constellation team are building from the ground up is worth watching closely, and with a dash of affection. Preaching a return to trust among people as a way to overcome obstacles—even huge ones—may be an approach as old as humanity, but that makes it no less radical. To borrow a phrase from Adnan Hyder: think globally, act locally.
Jean-Louis Lamboray: What Makes Us Human? Balboa Press. 2016. Myth #6: The history of Africa is written in black and white
we humans ultimately end up as prisoners of our own reputations reduced to clichés
It’s not a bad joke; it’s a hackneyed saying, like all the rest. To round out the list, we come to that font of wisdom, our own illustrious Manuel Corachán. Dr Corachán reminds us that we humans ultimately end up as prisoners of our own reputations reduced to clichés, when in fact the reality is more subtle and complex—and the same is true of the misunderstood continent of Africa. This short book reminds us to observe without prejudice and just let the facts speak for themselves.
Manuel Corachán: Livingstone & Stanley: ni ángel, ni demonio. Edicions Bernat. 2016.