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"Advances in Global Health" Symposium: Less Thought, More Rhetoric

February 22nd, 2008 | 4 min read

By Tex

The air was full of excitement and promise as the hundreds of people attending Pacific Lutheran University’s “Advances in Global Health by Non-Governmental Organizations” symposium last evening, jauntily swagger and glide into the main ballroom of the Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center; students and affluent community members alike meld together, their ideological similarities strikingly visible in their dress

The only way to tell the difference between the two groups is by the slight difference in the cut and quality of their otherwise similar vintage (or vintage-lite) threads. The predominant hairstyle is long—on both men and women—with curls and waves seeming most fashionable among society’s self-proclaimed altruists and activists. Scarves and brightly colored accessories highlight the multi-ethnic sympathies of most of the attendees here.

The conference coordinators orchestrated the symposium with mastery. From the ethnic up-scale appetizers and refreshments to the sign language translator in a prominent position next to the keynote stage, nothing was missed in an attempt to accommodate guests of every tongue, tribe, and nation.

The foyer is full of tables offering brightly colored pictures and brochures showing the human face of suffering in the developing world. Next to the slick appeals of the well-funded NGOs stand homemade displays with handwritten or Kinkos produced signs and pamphlets highlighting the plight of those who do not have a voice of their own among the wealthy.

We are here, I am told by the conference leader and provost of Pacific Lutheran University, because we know the role that global health plays in our future and the future of our world. The Pacific Northwest is a center for seeking solutions and shaping policies in global health. Our goal is to engage the world.

Keynote speaker, social democrat, and U.N. insider, Stephen Lewis fashioned his lecture around the eight “Millennial Goals” of the U.N. adopted by 189 heads of state in 2000. Without going into the details of the speech (video will posted somewhere here by 23 Feb 2008), Lewis used each of these goals as variations on a theme: The suffering of the developing world ought to move the hearts and pocketbooks of the developed world to altruistic action but has not, to the shame of every citizen of the developed world.

Typical hot-button issues were trotted out in familiar fashion as Lewis took the audience to task for living as though the lives of Western children are more valuable than their African peers, and for daring to live happy, full, and healthy lives while numerous human beings suffer and die simply because they lack sufficient access to Western wealth.

The content of Lewis’ argument consisted of moving word-pictures describing the horrors of starvation and AIDS sapping the life of mothers writhing in agony on dirt floors while their children stand by and watch in shock, alternating with emphatic overstatements regarding the “incomprehensible” and “unbelievable” callousness of citizens of the developed world towards suffering that is “beyond the capacity of the human mind to comprehend.”

Frankly, I was more than a little disappointed as Lewis turned the opportunity afforded him for thoughtful engagement on a variety of issues facing the world population into little more than a stump speech for feminism and social democratic values dressed up in the finery of sympathy and compassion. Perhaps my sights were set too high, but I did hope that the promised symposium on “Advances in Global Health” led by such a notable international figure would produce thoughtful discussion rather than whipping attendees into a frenzy of emotion, moving them to work immediately towards any solution so long as it was offered in close chronological proximity to the battle cry of the speaker.

I gave up hope of finding any information or argument of substance to interact with when Lewis finally described his ideological opponents as “pathological people opposed to common sense.” It is this type of vilification that serves to stop healthy discussion and strong arms people into the distasteful position of either endorsing or rejecting an issue completely, without giving adequate attention to the details found in the many shades of gray. Such polarization of the issues may be acceptable (or at least a necessary evil) in political speeches during an election year; they are unhealthy and dangerous when permitted and applauded in explicitly academic settings.