February 20, 2013, marks the seventh annual World Day of Social Justice, a day dedicated to advancing a world that promotes a peaceful and prosperous coexistence. 

Partners In Health has worked to pioneer and galvanize a social justice approach to global health since its inception 25 years ago, working alongside displaced peasants in the Central Plateau of Haiti. But what do we mean by a social justice approach to global health, why does it matter, and how is it different than other approaches? 

For PIH Co-founder Dr. Paul Farmer, social justice means providing a preferential option for the poor in health care. For us, this means that the poor and their interests should always be the top priority in all our efforts. We take this approach because it is a moral imperative, but also because it makes good epidemiological sense. Those who live in the throes of extreme poverty bear the brunt of ill health and preventable disease.

Furthermore, these efforts should be carried out in “pragmatic solidarity” with those facing injustices. As Dr. Farmer explains in his book Pathologies of Power, "Solidarity is a precious thing: people enduring great hardship often remark that they are grateful for the prayers and good wishes of human beings. But when sentiment is accompanied by the goods and services that might diminish unjust hardship, surely it is enriched. To those in great need, solidarity without the pragmatic component can seem like so much abstract piety."

Therefore, a social justice approach requires immediate, pragmatic action paired with a larger critical analysis of, and fight against, structural violence. In other words, in our fight to eradicate structural violence, we cannot overlook those suffering now. As Dr. Farmer puts it in Pathologies of Power, "The destitute sick ardently desire the eradication of poverty, but their tuberculosis can be readily cured by drugs such as isoniazid and rifampin."

But what are we supposed to do if we are not a doctor, nurse, or public health professional? What actions can we take in our daily lives to advance the human right to health?

For me, a non-health professional, these are questions I’ve wrestled with long and hard. As someone based in the U.S. with little in the way of technical skills, what difference can I make in the lives of a Haitian man with tuberculosis or a woman in need of a cesarean section in Neno, Malawi?

To me, community organizing—identifying and recruiting volunteer leaders, building community around that leadership, and generating power from that community—is a mechanism through which each of us can contribute to help shift the structures that prevent much of the world from being able to live healthy, dignified lives.

A heartening trend is the ballooning interest in global health among college students, young professionals, religious congregations, and even companies and their employees. Many organizations have grown in response to this inspiring trend: GlobeMed, FACE AIDS, and the Global Health Corps to name three. Each is focused on building deep communities of solidarity and leadership around the common purpose of advancing and realizing the human right to health for far more people around the world.

Looking forward, we need to explore new ways of collaborating to learn, teach, and raise the profile of the social justice approach to global health. We need grassroots fundraising teams so that more people support PIH and other organizations with similar mandates. And most importantly, we need to build more aggressive advocacy campaigns and actions that improve the way foreign aid and development assistance impact the rights of the poor.

PIH’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Joia Mukherjee once said, “No data in the world, no good vaccine, no potent medicine will get to the poorest of the poor without you. There will be no equity without solidarity. There will be no justice without a social movement.”

On this World Day of Social Justice, let’s reflect on the fact that just as there will be no justice without a social movement, there will be no social movement without community organizing.

If you are interested in joining us in this movement to advance social justice and the human right to health, sign up to be a Community Organizer with PIH | Engage.

Thank you for all that you do—it means the world to us.

Jon Shaffer is the community engagement coordinator at Partners In Health. In this role, he is working to build a community organizing strategy that can strengthen the growing movement for health as a human right. Previously, Shaffer served for two years as the executive director of GlobeMed. He loves tossing the Frisbee, drinking good coffee, and being from Portland, OR.

 

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