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Global Health: a battle we should choose – Peter Singer Interview

Peter A. Singer on the future of Global Health, and how to make it happen.

Peter Singer interviewed at Cambridge Global Health Year Launch (c) Elizabeth Wagemann

October means new beginnings in a university town like Cambridge. But for those under the spectre of malaria, October brought the beginning of new hopes for a brighter future with the successful trial of RTS,S, a malaria vaccine. At the same time, the persistent famine in the Horn of Africa left a sober reminder that future is far from rosy.

What does October means for global health? In an interview with Dr. Peter Singer, CEO of the Grand Challenge Canada, he envisions a world acting collectively to treat mental and physical health with equal seriousness, where contributions are made based on one’s strengths instead of whatever opportunity is available.

He began the interview with an advice to aspiring world-changers: Don’t go for immediate results, but for opportunities to make the best use of their abilities.

‘A battle we should choose’

Dr Singer made it clear that global health issues are “too large” for any one particular organisation to tackle and that it can be engaged effectively only through a partnership approach to bring together firms, governments and communities to pool resources towards building a solution for the issue. Using the malaria vaccine as an example, he is convinced partnership is possible, even if history suggest otherwise.

“Companies that used to sue governments are now working with governments to develop malaria vaccine”

One such company is the GlaxoSmithKline(GSK). In 2001, it launched a lawsuit against the South African government over concerns on patents right for an AIDS medicine. After a decade, however, not only the one-time courtroom rivals pooled their resources together in a knowledge pool on Neglected Tropical disease, but the spirit of cooperation extended beyond South Africa. To date, GSK is a Research & Development Partner for the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative.

While talking about malaria, he argued for a partnership for a less regarded, but equally dangerous, issue in global health—Mental Health. He regarded it as “the battle we should choose because there is so much suffering”.

‘Lab to village’

Turning himself again on the topic of partnership, he clarifies partnership should not be restricted to people-institution only, but includes interaction between people and technology. He described a visit to an information village in India

“[It can be as simple as] a computer in the middle of a fisher village, warning people about tsunamis, informing people, connecting people. It was an example of a bottom up development by technology”

This sentiment echo to the hope of Dr. Cockburn, of Agility development movement, that one day the software development movement’s result-based methodology could be translated into concrete benefits for people facing poverty.

For a partnership to work, though, Dr Singer emphasised it must be able to capture public imagination; to bring together people who would otherwise not collaborate on the issue it is addressing, and be close to its intended beneficiaries, or as he called it, shortening the distance from “Lab to village”.

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