When I come across a sentence like – hold your breath – this one, “achieving systemic transformation under the banner of climate justice requires that we deconstruct power relations and gender norms as colonial social constructs from an intersectional and community-based perspective”, I tend to grab an extra cup of coffee. How shall I “walk the walk” of all this in my next ecologically footprint- enhancing trip overseas to change the behaviour of people who have not invited me?
Last week it helped a little to read about Frans de Waal’s new book, Different: What Apes Can Teach Us About Gender. A lot, it turns out. In the book, he tries to ‘put the biology back into gender’. His insights seem to confirm stereotypes (quite some male apes seem to like playing with toy cars, and female apes with dolls) which illustrates how ideas about an ideal world are often disturbed by this irritating habit of lived realities to be different from what we want them, perceive them or construct them to be – whatever language we use.
This difficult relation between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ made me think of the turmoil that broke out when the Parliament of Uganda passed the Anti-Homosexuality Act, back in 2013. Countries cut development aid because Uganda dared to ignore warnings from the international community not to criminalize gays. The irony that British colonial administrators introduced anti-gay laws in the first place was missed by many. Inspired by King Henry VIII, who signed the Buggery Act in 1533, British colonial rule installed anti-gay laws throughout the nations of the Commonwealth.
Why was I thinking of all this? Perhaps because I find myself at times struggling how to reconcile important concepts like ‘decolonization’ and ‘shifting the power’ through a ‘rights-based approach’ with our own line of work – public health. Let me share my struggle moving up in a ‘bottom-up’ way, from the local all the way to the global level.
From the local to the global arena
At the local level, I have learned how to work in a setting that it structurally unfair. When working on gender and LBTGQ+ issues I am often told about local customs and traditions that are not in line with the rights-based approach. Yet, when we talk about LBTGQ+ issues, it always becomes interesting to see what we actually mean. It is far from clear, for example, what we mean by ‘homosexuality’, apart from the rather unromantic notion of ‘men having sex with men’ (MSM) that was adopted for practical reasons by HIV/Aids researchers. Men have (had) sex with men in many different contexts and times, even if the ancient Greeks or Indians, the Afghans, the Baruya or many different groups in Africa or Melanesia would never would (have) label(ed) this as ‘homosexuality’. As for another gendered issue, when doing research for a ‘She Decides’ project of Enabel on FGM, quite a few women in Guinea told me squarely that they will indeed decide for themselves on intimate issues affecting their own bodies – while also pointing at the double standards ( see Female Genital Cosmetic Surgery in the West) in the process. This leads to interesting frictions between the universal right to bodily integrity and the ‘Western position on FGM’ against a background of decolonization.
Our partner organisations are well aware that not only society, but many of their own employees do not accept LGBTQIA+’s. Yet they comply with a human rights-based approach because they believe that culture is not static (as shown above), education helps, and that there is nothing ‘colonial’ about giving people options. As long as we are aware of our ‘foreign gaze’ and are honest and open about our motives and ‘positionality’. In fact, using that positionality helps a lot in ‘co-creating change’ (my god, these words….).
At this local level I noticed it helps to bring up my own position and privilege from the beginning. I can ask the people that did not invite me what they think that I think gives me the right to interfere, and how I dare to question local behaviour. To legitimize my presence, I use a lesson I learned from former Dutch politician Jan Pronk, who emphasises that we need some degree of universality if we want to (legitimately) push for transformative change in a world of many contesting values, religions and politics, certainly in settings that are not our own. He argues convincingly that we have the Universal Declaration on Human Rights – and not much else. It is only on that common ground, however narrow, that we can find ways to stop abuse, improve health, and think about how to do that.
When it comes to how we go about making change, I apply a lesson I learned from medical anthropologist Cecil Helman. He taught me that you always have a right to ask why people do what they do. Then you simply keep asking, until people start reflecting on their own answers, which is when you really – at least if you know how to listen – can begin to understand alternative realities. That attitude can be turned into a technique which delivers transformational change (an example of a similar approach from South India was presented last week by Prashanth Srinivas at ITM).
So far, no problem. It is when we leave the cosy level of the community and try to bring lessons learned to the national level that things get more complex ( in terms of governance, research impact etc). An even fiercer battle starts when moving to the global level. When we try to scale up, scale deep, or scale sideways a tested ‘co-created intervention’, or check if it may even trickle up, our positive approach quickly bumps into the hard reality of realpolitik. In “pragmatic” power play at the global level, the human rights discourse often changes from an empowering norm for health policy into an instrument of Western power. Our knowledge of pathways to sustainable change, like adaptive change and the multi-level perspective, turn out no match for the guardians of ‘the system’ – those that meet in Davos annually to make sure that nothing really changes. Even though we learned lessons on ‘spreading civilization’ through bloody colonialism and that democracy doesn’t work from the point of a gun, epidemics show us that colonialism and blood are still connected, while the temptation to start another human rights-based war more often than not takes the attention away from ‘health for all’. You know, the stuff this newsletter is all about.
It’s getting hot
So having reached this global level, my struggle is double. Structural action is needed because global health governance is only very loosely related to the right to health. Structural action requires system change – difficult but long overdue, and thus an undeniable part of progress. But then I hear the rattling hooves of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, struggling to bring more than seven plagues to us, apparently in stiff competition with each other to eradicate us all…shall it be the flash of nuclear power, a pandemic caused by one of the 40.000 lurking viruses, generously assisted by antimicrobial resistance, or just a an ordinary old-fashioned war, plus famine and migration, all egged on by the climate emergency? It seems more than even Hollywood can handle!
Like a rabbit in the headlights I have to choose between just reacting to the shocks or fixing the system. Or should we try both, like ‘adaptation with robustness’? Looking at the dazzling first line of this blog, do we actually have enough time left to achieve “systemic transformation under the banner of climate justice”? And when shall we start “deconstructing power relations and gender norms as colonial social constructs from an intersectional and community-based perspective”?
Well, better get started anyway, I say. The rabbit is frozen because she doesn’t know whether to fight or flee – but freezing won’t fool the climate either. Perhaps there is just time left for another stimulating cup of coffee – and then let’s get to it!