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“We know who holds most of the power, and they need to change”: Dr Samuel Oti on parity and the power of knowledge

As a public health professional who has written several peer-reviewed articles, Dr. Oti is very vocal about the power imbalances that plague the practice of global health. He has spoken at many events about decolonizing knowledge. Before he travels to Amsterdam from Nairobi, Kenya, he speaks to us about why he considers it important to speak at this event.

Dr Samuel Oti is one of the keynote speakers at the Power of Knowledge event KIT is co-hosting with Asfari Insitute, in Beirut, and EthiXpert in Johannesburg. He is the founding secretary-general of the Network of Impact Evaluation Researchers in Africa (NIERA), and an inaugural member of the Global Health Decolonization Movement in Africa (GHDM-Africa). Dr Oti is the creator and host of MedxTek Africa – a podcast that showcases digital health and health technology innovations across Africa and a Commissioner of the newly formed Chatham House Commission for Universal Health.

At the event on 1 September, in Amsterdam, we will examine how the North-South paradigm shapes the flow of knowledge adversely and how we can effectively move away from an imbalanced structure towards a more equitable one by creating equitable partnerships. 

To start with, Dr. Oti prefers to use the terms more and less powerful countries instead of the ubiquitous Global North and South often used when discussing the power imbalances within the international development sector.

Less and more powerful countries

“I don’t think it needs further elaboration, but there’s a power imbalance that tends to play out between powerful countries and less powerful countries. Most recently, we’ve seen it with issues like vaccine distribution during the pandemic. We know who leads some of the most powerful global health institutions, and we know who makes the important funding decisions. I think it’s important for us to begin to talk about this disparity and that’s why this event appeals to me,” he explains.

When asked if he was having these conversations frequently in Kenya or at forums in the African sub-continent, he replies, “A lot of the momentum around this topic is driven by practitioners in powerful countries. Some of them have origins, links, or ties to less powerful countries. They are challenging the status quo in institutions in powerful countries where they work and where they are practicing global health. But I’m not seeing enough of those conversations happening locally.” 

The topic of his speech at the event will be Decolonial Praxis in Global Health – An African Perspective. He will discuss the manifestation of coloniality in global health, and how it is reflected in the lived experiences of global health practitioners in Africa. 

Contextual knowledge or technical knowledge?

“I like telling stories, let me tell you a short story that highlights this,” he says. “In a village in rural Kenya bed-nets treated with insecticide were distributed for malaria prevention. But this village was a fishing community, and they needed fishing–nets at the time, so they quickly turned those insecticide-treated bed-nets into fishing nets. Local nuances and local context matter, that’s why you need local expertise and local knowledge. Without it, the ramifications can be quite significant.”

What needs to change then? 

“In the Global Health Decolonisation Movement in Africa, that I am a part of, we have developed recommendations for practitioners and institutions in powerful countries. They may seem like superficial things, and we know they will not uproot deeply entrenched imbalances. But they can signal a change.”

Many of the recommendations in the document Dr. Oti refers to ultimately advocate for equality – equality in all aspects of work. For instance, one of the recommendations states: Reject “saviourism” in all its manifestations. For example, refuse to be part of collaborations that do not give equal opportunity and reward to the contributions of your African and UIGH (Under-represented in Global Health) counterparts.

“It’s a question of co-creation. Often, there is a lack of transparency. For instance, organizations in more powerful countries will not tell you the full value of the grant they’ve received. They’ve already come up with an almost fully formed idea and your job is to accept whatever they are offering and try to make it work. But for equitable partnerships, you need to co-create and you need to elevate your local partners regardless of technical superiority. People in the context have what I call contextual superiority. I don’t advocate elevating one over the other. We should be put at par; we should look at each other as equals.”

Trust-based funding and development

Funding organizations can play an important role in creating this parity. According to Dr. Oti, “A lot of funders have invested resources strengthening local capacity. But they still don’t seem to have confidence in those institutions. It is unfortunate that even after building all this capacity a funding agency will support an institution in a powerful country to do the very work they’ve been strengthening capacities for in a less powerful country.”

Dr. Oti cites the ‘Trust-based Funding’ of Mackenzie Scott as a refreshing approach to funding. After months of research, her team of advisors identifies recipients, who will then go on to receive unrestricted funding. In this case the funders do not dictate the agenda for the organisation to follow.

So, at the end of the day with whom does the onus of change lie?

“I think it lies with the more powerful countries. They have more power, more agency, and more influence. They have the potential to influence things positively simply because they hold the lion’s share of power. So, for me, I think that the answer is simple. But that doesn’t take away any responsibility from less powerful countries. They also need to think about how they can invest more in their own development. How can they deal with governance and corruption issues better? It’s not mutually exclusive. Furthermore, I also always ask, where are our billionaires? Many countries in Africa have billionaires. Why are they not stepping up to address our development challenges?”