Conflict, Canadians and Public Health: Dr. Samantha Nutt, Founder of War Child Canada

‘Tis the season… for term papers, exams and thesis crunch time. But, sometimes, it’s important to take the time to let yourself be inspired and make sure you hold on to that big picture perspective that makes all of those late nights with textbooks worthwhile. So last week I attended Dr. Samantha Nutt’s talk at McMaster. Sam is the founder of War Child Canada and someone I have heard so much about for many years. I attended a mid-sized private high school in Toronto and Sam is one of our most prized alumni. Through the many e-mails from our alumni association praising her work and offering her various awards and distinctions, and through my work with War Child in high school, Sam became someone who truly inspired me. As a young woman beginning my transition from student to professional in global health, I appreciated so much of what Sam spoke about.

Fresh out of medical school and finishing a Master’s degree at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Sam was recruited by UNICEF for a mission in Somalia. She said she thought she would be most useful doing what she was trained to do “healing the sick and the wounded.” However, she shared that her perceived isolation from the fundamental societal issues causing the vast and complex medical problems she was faced with made her feel ignorant, even complicit in the atrocities she was seeing. This feeling certainly rings true for me. In a theoretical context, I’ve studied countless case studies of failed public health interventions that have neglected the underlying social determinants that perpetuate disparities in health. Practically, I’ve experienced it, although not in the middle of a conflict within the “City of Death” as Sam did. But my experience abroad did help me understand that, for example, you can’t address issues surrounding family planning and obstetric care if you don’t deal with issues in gender roles, paternalistic decision-making and stigma. The real dilemma Sam said she faced on her first trip to Somalia was that “none of the interventions we attempted were possible with drugged-up, trigger happy boys running around. We could do very little.” Faced with this challenge, Sam founded War Child Canada – a non-governmental organization that aims to work collaboratively with communities to increase access to education, overcome the obstacles of poverty and create a protective environment for the rights of children and youth – to tackle the root cause of the problem Sam saw. Instead of enlisting in the militia, young men can attend War Child’s youth centres and work to catch up on their education.

Not everyone has to start an NGO to contribute to the global effort to end armed conflict and its devastating results on communities and children. Through all the staggering statistics Sam shared on the trillions spent on military action and the investments of the Canada Pension Plan in arms manufacturers, her message of self-directed education was persistent. Strengthening the connection between public health and armed conflict, Sam referred to the “pandemic of weapons” and urged the audience, or any individual with a vested interest in global health, to take four steps to tackle the root causes of this pandemic. First, social change begins with knowledge and information on current affairs, and critical thinking. Second, Sam urged the audience to give what they can, financially and in terms of expertise and human resources. Sam further emphasized that giving needs to be consistent and wise – contributing to organizations working to address the root causes rather than band-aid solutions to complex global health issues. Third, individuals should change the way they shop and invest and should ask questions of the industry to encourage social change. Before buying that electronic gadget this holiday season, everyone should take the time to ask whether the coltan used in the manufacturing process was ethically mined, or if it has contributed to the ongoing violence and social degradation in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Finally, western individuals must “stop ceding to the idea that life is more relevant here” than it is “over there.” This perspective feeds into that perceived isolation. The term we use to discuss these issues is GLOBAL health… issues in health that transcend both the clinical setting and national borders. It is therefore imperative that we too adopt this global perspective to better understand and begin to address the root cause of persistent armed conflict and its consequences. Sam’s central point was interestingly similar to the final conclusion our global health governance class came to in a simulation of the Forum’s stakeholder dialogue on Addressing Health and Emerging Global Issues in Canada. Both Sam and our global health governance class determined that a significant determinant in global health is understanding that we live in a global village of sorts. Our actions and decisions, both individual and at a national level, have significant global public health impacts.  The most significant next step we saw as we assessed the options proposed in the issue brief, was to begin a process of education, like Sam mentioned. Non-health actors must be aware of global health concerns in order to make informed decisions that are in the best interest of Canadians and our international neighbours.

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