Friday, April 3, 2009

What is International Health?

Before I answer the question, I’ll answer "How did we come to call our work International Health?" I imagine it’s because it was doctors who were the first ones to go abroad and serve the poor. As its field diffused, the people working for the poor abroad probably found that all their colleagues self described their field as “International Health,” so by force of peer pressure, it spread.

Believing “International Health” to be a field, undergraduates with this ambition all change their majors to conform to it. Lacking a particular major, they choose the closest approximation. And so the result is every college now has a major full of bright-eyed global service-minded freshmen leaving other departments drained of such people.

But what is it? Despite high enrollment in Hum Bio, International Health is not a unified by field. It includes people from most disciplines who have very different approaches and roles to play. It’s certainly not just doctors (as much as we, in medicine, like to think of ourselves as it’s lynchpin).

Even in its philosophy it is not unified. Some are involved because they believe that human rights are being violated. These view the matter as a sort of legal violation of people by corrupt governments or corporations. Others are quite moralistic about it; they believe they are morally obligated to work abroad. Still others hold that service to the poor is primarily an opportunity to do good; they focus more on the virtue of the service than on the evil in the situation. Some haven’t even thought through their own motivations.

International Health’s real unification is not in philosophy, skill set, or even field (despite the implications of the phrase “International Health”); we are unified by our common desire to improve the condition of the poor (who happen to mostly live abroad). We have a common and united heart. Humanist Moralists and Christian Virtue-Ethicists can work together for the cause of their poorer brothers. So too can anthropologists and artists join with doctors and dentists in bringing help to those in need. International health is not about externals of career or field, nor is it about a unified way of thinking. International Health is a movement of those who have a common heart to improve the condition of the poor abroad.

It seems that the clunky six-syllable name we have inherited is both imprecise and inaccurate. Other alternatives have been suggested like Social Justice (which is definitely snappy but implies a particular philosophy) and International Development (which can get confused with building tract houses in Saudi Arabia), but none have quite captured what it is that unifies us.

I propose the phrase “Global Compassion.” The focus here is on the heart of those engaged in it, not on the field (this may release people from the implied obligation to major in it). It’s specific enough to talk about the focus being abroad, and ‘compassion’ is broad enough to include work in any field motivated by a good heart. Additionally, compassion demands a relationship; it may help us to remember that, though we may transform corrupt governments and implement stellar public health efforts, our goal in the end is to help individual people.

How would I like to define International Health? “A phrase used in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries to describe work in what is now called ‘Global Compassion.’” And I would define Global Compassion as: “A movement characterized by a heart to improve the wellbeing of the poor in all dimensions through the application of various disciplines.”

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