Global health: A political evolution

Global health is a common buzzword among grassroots organizations, independent foundations and news outlets, but what exactly led to the popularity and creation of this term?

Guest lecturer Richard G. Parker spoke about his most recent work, a study of the political history of HIV, AIDS and sexual matters and the invention of global health in a keynote address Thursday.

Parker, a professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University, kicked off a two-day event, Libidinal Investments, organized by the Sexualities Project at Northwestern.

Global health is a “boom” industry; there is nothing hotter on U.S. college campuses, Parker said. In order to unravel the meaning behind this popular label, Parker looked back on 50 years of history.

He identified three key sets of processes leading to the invention of global health:

Professor Richard G. Parker discussed his latest work, the invention of global health against a background of political history, at Northwestern University Thursday.            Source: Rian Ervin

– Population control, demographic thinking and the politics of international development

– The politics of HIV, sexual difference and the imagination of the global

– The struggle for reproductive rights

Each of these three processes emerged during a specific period of political change. Increased health research, the invention of international health organizations and social advocacy formed and shaped politics.

At the end of World War II, the concept of “developed” and “underdeveloped” countries emerged, resulting in the notion that international health problems existed, Parker said.

International organizations such as the World Health Organization and UNICEF were created to solve these problems, and the field of international health was born.

At the same time, an increased fear of population explosion placed new emphasis on the desire to develop third world countries, Parker said.

Population dynamics and research became central units of investment. Three large surveys analyzing fertility, contraceptive use and demographic health circulated the world for the first time.

The emergence of HIV in the 1980s resulted in a second wave of change.

HIV took on an essential role in the shift from the programmatic to the global vision of health, said Parker. Instead of creating organizations to solve health problems, cultural activism emerged, he said.

Population research shifted to sexuality research, bringing new focus to discussions of gender, sexuality and power. The HIV outbreak gave a voice to minorities, women and the LGBT community, Parker said.

The creation of international HIV and AIDS organizations, along with a global network of those living with the disease truly connected people across the world.

While Parker attributes HIV as the main historical element responsible for the invention of a global health community, he said there is still a long way to go in perfecting social and political mobilization.

The struggle for reproductive rights is the latest issue, according to Parker, and has been evolving over the past 15 years.

The ongoing abortion debate and 9/11 have caused huge shifts in how people think about health security and health rights, Parker explained.

While he isn’t sure how this issue will evolve, Parker said women’s empowerment is at the center of debate in the international arena.

Moving the ideas of feminism and LGBT sexual diversity across ethnic and cultural boundaries “is not simple,” said Parker. However, these fields are being discussed globally. “There is an expanding notion of inclusion,” he said.

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