In much of the social sector, the dichotomy between those served and those serving still influences the way we work. We may talk about global health, but when we say global, I’ve found we usually mean low-resource countries. This line of thinking, with its colonial roots, only reinforces often false dichotomies between donor and recipient countries and communities.
One of the unintended benefits of the pandemic was accelerating an understanding of what we have long known: We need to redefine “global” and recognize and connect local expertise. Communities across the globe have a lot to teach each other, and the onset of a global pandemic has made this abundantly clear as the countries with the strongest containment and prevention responses for Covid-19 are not always donor countries.
From Global To Local
When Seattle was the hotspot in the U.S. at the beginning of the pandemic, as the president of an organization working to improve access to health care, I was acutely aware of how funding for public health had been constrained for years across the U.S.
Public health professionals were asking the same questions that I had seen the Ministry of Public Health in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) ask during the Ebola outbreak in one of the provinces where we work. Where do we find the resources and funding for unexpected epidemics? And how do we address issues of inequity in our health care delivery system?
So when a local public health agency in Washington state was looking for partners with expertise in vaccine delivery, we raised our hand to help. We had people on our team in Seattle with deep expertise in vaccination programs — built through their work in Africa — during a time when the logistics and planning of the Covid-19 vaccine rollout were extremely unknown. It is almost hard to remember what it was like in December 2020, but it was all hands on deck. Our intent was to take advantage of what we knew about how to run vaccine logistics in Africa to help Washington state reach its vaccine equity goals locally, while also learning important details about early Covid-19 vaccine rollouts to infuse that information globally.
For us, this is how the virtuous cycle came to be.
Lessons From The Virtuous Cycle
Activating the virtuous cycle taught me important lessons that my organization will apply to our future work beyond the pandemic. Here are three learnings that highlight the value of bi-directional learning and how it can help your organization increase its impact.
1. Identify the shared problem.
Your organization might be a national or even a statewide nonprofit with contextual differences, however, it can be easy to forget sometimes that the problems we face as a global community are the same. Before designing a solution from scratch, be willing to look for answers from other countries or communities.
For example, when we began our work locally in Washington state, we assumed that the challenges facing the U.S. supply chain and health system would be very different from the challenges in Africa. But we found our assumptions to be wrong as we encountered the same issues, such as limited public health infrastructure, lack of data and data systems and a constrained workforce. Because the problems were similar, we utilized expertise from our colleagues in Mozambique, Malawi and the DRC to adapt our vaccine delivery solutions to fit the needs of Washington state and accelerate their local vaccination efforts.
2. Create opportunities for knowledge transfer.
You are likely working with various colleagues, partners and collaborators with a variety of backgrounds — and they may even be spread across the globe. This means you have many perspectives to help solve problems.
The challenge becomes how to make the most of all this knowledge. I suggest having weekly or bi-weekly consultation sessions where all teams share the developments and observations for their region and actively provide feedback on the strategies and approaches in other regions. These meetings — when set up with norms that encourage diverse thinking — become the touchstone for everyone involved in a project and allow you to capitalize on the diverse knowledge of your team. These meetings can also allow you to intentional about taking the lessons and the knowledge base from your work in one location or project to plan for others.
3. Keep an eye toward the future.
In the social sector, we know that many of the challenges that affect low-resource communities are systemic. This means when we are creating solutions to address immediate community needs, we also need to think about what’s ahead. It can be challenging, especially for small organizations, to have the time and resources to solve for now and prepare for the future.
I have found it incredibly useful to have one team focused on the immediate and urgent needs for a project and a second team that thinks ahead about how to apply what you are learning more globally. Having two teams work simultaneously can also help you establish systems to be more prepared for future challenges. For example, we took this approach with our Washington state work, and I think this will help the public health systems, both in the African countries we work in and in Washington, to be more resilient for the next disease outbreak.
I believe embracing opportunities for bi-directional learning is the best way to address global challenges. As a sector, we have the privilege and the duty to amplify the lessons from the communities we serve and to ensure we do not redraw the lines that separate the serving and the served.
When we learn from one another, we all benefit — because global really means everyone, everywhere.