It takes all of one day of field work in Sub-Saharan Africa to realize that the culture surrounding development is a real problem. No matter how old you are, how qualified or unqualified you are, your status as somebody from the Global North guarantees you a seat at the table, and when you talk, people listen. The best thing you can do with that privilege is rearrange the table.
Global Health has seen enough condescension. More than good ideas, what is needed are people willing to listen, people who do not need to be the one generating the life-saving idea, but rather the one who heard that idea, who had the bravery to support it, and the initiative to facilitate it. In an increasingly connected world, where ideas can be shared instantaneously across continents, the very nature of leadership is transforming from needing to be the smartest person in the room, to being the person able to harness the most from the intelligence already in the room.
On my most recent trip to Africa, I was hired to consult with major energy and water providers across Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania to help build monitoring and evaluation systems with the goal of improving service delivery. My ideas were never the ones that lead to the best systems; how could they be, I am a student with nowhere near the experience of the professionals I was working with and a foreigner who will never understand these countries like the people who live in them. But despite that, I was able to contribute not through my ideas, but by connecting the ingenious ideas of the people around me.
The most challenging aspect of working in Sub-Saharan Africa is navigating government bureaucracies. Rather than being pathways for idea sharing, these institutions have a way of stifling creativity, of preventing an idea from scaling ministries or departments and really making a difference. Often times, these roadblocks are even worse between the public and private sector, where different parties refuse to collaborate with each other, or even admit that there might be value in collaboration. Simply mitigating the harmful effects of this institutional congestion can be just as important as the ideas worth sharing.
If we are serious about turning our global ambitions into realities, two things are certainly true; people need to listen to each other, not just between organizations, countries, and continents, but also within them. And, whenever there is the chance, these groups need to work together to address the challenges that confront us. While our stakes in the issues might be different, we must be willing to look past any incentive-mismatch and realize that ultimately we want the same thing. If this was true for energy and water management in East Africa, then it is definitely true of loftier health goals or dreams of equity or human rights.
The next time you find yourself working in another country, or even at home, remember that sometimes the most valuable contributions you can make are to listen, synthesize and facilitate. Sure it is not the sexiest skill to bring to the table, but global health is about getting your hands dirty, about putting aside your ego and shouldering your pride, and doing whatever is required to help. There are a lot of really smart people in this world with really good ideas. There are a lot less really smart people who are capable and ready listeners, who can identify the right ideas and make sure they thrive. I implore you to be the latter.