Reframing the Global Health Debate

By Valerie Percival

Transition planners are laying the groundwork for Canada’s new government.  One issue that has received little mention as a key issue for the new government — global health — deserves more scrutiny.

Canada has the expertise to shine on the world stage.  Canadian scientists are often at the forefront of solutions to global health problems, undertaking cutting edge research and innovation.

But our government machinery is outdated.  We are unable to effectively engage with international initiatives and promote and showcase this expertise.  Sounds a bit boring and bureaucratic.  But it’s true.

The world of global health is a complex mess of institutions, private actors, donors and recipient countries, and countless international initiatives and commitments.  Hundreds of millions of dollars flow through the system.

Continue reading

The trouble with Canada’s approach on maternal health

By Valerie Percival

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is proud of Canada’s engagement on maternal health. The Muskoka Initiative, launched during Canada’s G8 presidency in 2010, has committed US$7.3 billion (with $2.85 billion from Canada) to address maternal mortality and child health. During the current election campaign, the Prime Minister refers to it as an example of Canada’s leadership on the world stage. Supporters include Melinda Gates and Ban Ki-moon. The money has undoubtedly shone a light on a key global health issue and saved lives.

What’s the problem?

The problem is that we don’t want women and girls just to survive. We want them to thrive. Canada’s current approach to maternal health may keep girls and women alive, but it does not promote a context that improves their life chances. It’s simply not good enough. Not for a country like Canada.

A scroll through the list of projects funded by the Muskoka Initiative reveals a clear focus on the provision of health care services: Canada builds delivery rooms, provides equipment, and trains health care workers.

Continue reading

The Syrian Crisis: A three-pronged strategy for Canada

By Valerie Percival

The Syrian crisis is no longer contained. Millions of refugees have fled into neighbouring countries. Tens of thousands are walking miles across Europe in search of safety and compassion.   Yet the world seems paralyzed – incapable of a coordinated response.

Canada shares in that paralysis. The recent announcement from the government recognizing Syrians as “prima facie” refugees, appointing a senior coordinator and scaling up immigration staff is welcome. Yet the government changed its policies begrudgingly, with a cap of just 10,000 refugees by the end of the year and 46,000 by 2019. Their talking points remain constant, reminding Canadians that an influx of tens of thousands of refugees from Syria could undermine Canada’s security and way of life.

Such a parochial approach is inconsistent with the facts. Canada is a rich country. We are also a nation of migrants. Refugees fleeing war and oppression have long contributed to Canada’s material wealth, social capital and promise. And Canada’s security has always been best served by extending a hand to those in need.

Continue reading

The sorry state of Canada’s foreign policy debate

By Valerie Percival

Much of the debate about foreign policy is directed towards the elected government, and the political positions it takes on current international issues. These positions deserve public debate and scrutiny, particularly given the upcoming October election. But what about the machinery behind the elected government? Much of foreign policy actually revolves around the day-to-day performance of unelected leaders within the bureaucracy. Do we encourage these leaders to develop and maintain skills – the knowledge base, the willingness to assess available research and evidence, and the intellectual curiosity necessary to be innovative in the face of new challenges? Perhaps this should also be an issue for debate during our election campaign.

To effectively teach in the field of international affairs, professors face several challenges. The field covers pretty much everything these days, from the traditional — conflict, security, trade, and development — to the more novel — health, environment, energy, finance, and more. The field is also prolific; new ideas and ways to view the world constantly emerge. Moreover, the world itself continually changes — the unexpected is always around the corner and tomorrow will not be like today. Explaining current events can be difficult. Yet explanation is definitely easier than predicting what will happen next year, or even next week.

Continue reading

Ebola: What Went Wrong

By Valerie Percival

The world’s complacency has turned to panic.

Ebola. The very word conjures up fear. No vaccine. No cure. Only about a third to half of those infected survive. The rest endure an excruciatingly painful death as the virus attacks and impairs cell structure and function, causing internal bleeding.

It used to be a disease that struck remote towns, deep in the African rainforest. Deadly, tragic, but contained, and far away.

Yet Ebola is not so far away anymore. The outbreak has gathered momentum, spreading across Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, travelling from rural to urban areas. Like a Hydra, it is popping up throughout the region – with cases in Lagos, Nigeria and Dakar, Senegal. And coincidentally, a separate outbreak has hit the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – where the virus was first identified in 1976.

It’s the largest Ebola outbreak on record. As of Aug. 31, it infected over 3,600 and killed more than 1,800 people across Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. (The World Health Organization said this week that the number of related deaths has surpassed 1,900.) Public health authorities caution that the epidemic is underestimated – with many cases unreported due to stigma, fear, inability to access health care services, or because those infected reside in remote rural areas. Experts predict that it could go on for months, infecting tens of thousands of people.

Continue reading

Women’s rights in the developing world: Build it and it will come?

As originally post at

By Valerie Percival

Mozambique is a land of contradictions.

Women were active in the independence struggle. Strong female civic leaders, like Graça Machel, participate actively in public life. And the government unequivocally supports international norms on women’s equality, such as the Beijing Platform for Action and the Millennium Development Goals. Even the UN Website in Mozambique proudly asserts “there is a juridical, political and institutional structure in Mozambique favourable to the promotion of gender issues and the empowerment of women.”

Yet Mozambique remains a very difficult place for girls and women. Female literacy rates, their education attainment and poverty levels, and their health outcomes are appalling. Sexual and physical abuse is widespread. It has one of the world’s highest rates of child marriage. Sexual assault in school is common, from boys as well as some teachers who demand sex as a condition for grade promotion.

Clearly the rights of women and girls are not respected, protected, or even properly understood.

Continue reading

Reading “Lean In” from Mozambique

Reading “Lean In” from Mozambique[1]

I am writing this from Mozambique, where I am on sabbatical while my spouse has taken a post with the Canadian embassy.  Like many women, I read Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead” with interest – compelled by both the subject and the hype that surrounded her book. I was prompted to complete this piece by the news that Sandberg will release a new version of “Lean In,” tailored to the needs of graduate students. 

While reading “Lean In” from Mozambique, I was reminded of the stark contrasts of our world, and of the very different realities that face the world’s women.  Mozambique has enjoyed high economic growth rates (averaging 7-8% over the last decade), but it still ranks 184 out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index – third from the bottom.  Mozambique remains desperately poor: its 2012 GNP was 14.59 billion USD.[2]  In the first 9 months of 2013, Facebook’s revenue (where Sheryl Sandberg is Chief Operating Officer) was 5.2 billion USD,[3] which places its 2013 revenue on course to be roughly half of Mozambique’s GNP.   

Continue reading