Interview with Dr. Joy Fitzgibbon

Professor Joy Fitzgibbon is a professor at the University of Toronto, teaching a course on public policy in the Trinity One International Relations Stream. She is an expert on global health policy, working at the intersection of international relations and public policy to explore the impact of global health networks on policy reform. She is the co-author of Networks of Knowledge: Collaborative Innovation in International Learning. She has produced policy reports for the Canadian International Development Agency and the Canadian Centre for Arms Control and Disarmament. Professor Fitzgibbon received her Ph. D. in political science from the University of Toronto and completed public health and clinical epidemiology courses here at the Faculty of Medicine, and at Johns Hopkins University.

While her education and intelligence may seem intimidating, she is one of the most approachable and friendly professors on campus. She has taken the time to meet with Peacework’s online columnist, Simone Garcia, to discuss the organization, global health, and the importance of experiential learning.

Simone: So, Professor Ftizgibbon, what inspired you to enter the field of global health?

Professor Fitzgibbon: Well, I came from the highly medical family of a nurse and an NGO worker. I grew up in a home where the needs of the poorest members of society were front and centre. As a student, I was greatly interested in the human security approach of Lloyd Axworthy. This made me realize that while international relations are important, we must take a broader approach to security. To me, global public health was an area of security that had not been previously examined in classic IR theory. The fact that access to healthcare is a life or death matter for so many people, and that we have the resources to combat this problem, is an issue of global proportions. There is much room for work on how to effectively manage responses to acute global health problems.

S: What do you think is the biggest hurdle facing global health today?

P.F.: Translating scientific advances in the field of public health into policies and programs that are available to those who most need them, regardless of their socio-economic background. There is a role for the World Health Organization in that, but the private sector, research institutions, foundations, and university researchers are also very important.  We need to harness resources to advance the knowledge of tools we already have, and learn how to best deliver them.  We also need to include those who have been systematically excluded from this conversation, as they are the ones who matter most, and who are on the receiving end of that care.  

S: Peacework is an international non-governmental institution that engages communities, academic institutions, and corporations to work together across different sectors in order to confront developmental roadblocks around the world. How important do you think this cross-sector solution is to solving global problems, and why?

P.F.: Essential. There is so much interdependency in the field of health. For example, problems in global health are linked to economic and social issues. If people are not receiving adequate healthcare, the economy suffers, the entire structure of society is at risk. Malnutrition is an example of this – those who are malnourished experience greater health problems because of a weakened immune system, and they are more likely to be and remain in poverty. There are also a number of intervening factors that get in the way of health, which include limited access to high quality healthcare, and a lack of infrastructure that supports this healthcare. Like concrete flooring – if someone is sleeping on a dirt floor, they are exposed to more potential threats to their health than someone who has a concrete floor under their feet. If someone can’t get to sleep at night because of a leaky roof, this affects their performance at work and weakens their immune system. There is a whole set of practical problems that need to be addressed alongside health care issues. We need to view medicine as a social process and take a holistic approach to health. We cannot see these as separate processes, since they are all connected. Education has also been proven to advance health – a study done in Haiti showed that women who have access to education stay in school longer, meaning that they do not move to Port-au-Prince at such a young age, are less likely to have unprotected sex, and therefore less likely to be at risk for HIV.

S: How do you feel about experiential learning?

P.F.: I view it as critical. You cannot expect someone to lead you out of the desert if they themselves have never been there. It is important to go into the field and see what is really going on. This is an invaluable learning experience, and a complement and perhaps corrective force to formal learning. More than that, it is a personal motivational experience, and can literally change the direction of the rest of your life – particularly in one’s formative years. There is also the potential for this experience to impact future generations, beyond a person’s time in the field. Someone who has experienced real life beyond what they have learned in a classroom is likely to impart this knowledge on to their children, and their children’s children. It even can result in validating or re-evaluating current government policies, as what is recommended may not be applicable in a local context. We are global citizens, and when we travel and learn from these experiences, we contribute to the world community.

S: What is the most important aspect of peacebuilding, in your opinion?  I realize that this involves having the proper motives, but is there also a physical element to this?

P.F.: Well, obviously it is having boots on the ground, but more than that, one needs to understand why their work is important. This purpose has to get through, beyond simple pragmatic actions. The recipient community also has to see the benefit to peacebuilding. For example, when I did research on peacebuilding in the Middle East, there was a focus on the idea that with peace comes a wide array of benefits. Peace pays, and this needs to be explained and understood. We need to not only have the infrastructure in place to support stability, we also need to know why we are doing this work, and we need to empower citizens through this knowledge as well. For those at the receiving end, there is a personal investment in the peacebuilding process, and everyone has a unique set of resources to the picture. Mind and hands are resources in and of themselves.

S: What should those considering a career in global health keep in mind?

P.F.: Academically, you need to decide what your strengths are, whether that is science or policy, health planning or administrative tasks. Some people can do all. But where you think you reside most prominently, you need to receive core training in that. Find own voice. It is also important to listen to the other side, and hear out different opinions and contradictory voices.  You also need to understand the levers behind this concept, why something is focused on, and what issues are off the table and why. It’s important to have a holistic degree, and round out your learning. For example, if you are majoring in global health, it might be wise to take some health policy courses. Interdisciplinary training is invaluable to coming up with cross-sector solutions to solve problems. The key is this: one entering the field of global health needs to remember who this work is all for - the patient is sitting in front of you. It boils down to those who desperately need care, many of whom do not have a voice in our system, and may not be represented in dominant approaches to global health. You need to focus on who is being ignored, and why certain diseases are more prominently seen amongst people who are poor.

S: That was great, thank you so much for your time.

P.F: No problem. Hope to see you again soon!