The Dark Side of Chocolate: A Story of Child Slave Labor in West Africa’s Cocoa Plantations

With the holidays approaching, I can’t help but notice one of my favorite sweets making an appearance in almost every store I visit. Chocolate is an indulgence most of us in America can’t consider living without. However, after joining the team at the international non-profit, United Aid for Africa, I was motivated to take a second look at how and at what cost, we get our chocolate.

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Band Aid 30: Celebrities Strike Again

Over the weekend the song These Days by UK pop group Take That made it to number one on the UK Official Singles Chart. So why is that good news? Because the song took the number one spot from Band Aid 30’s Do They Know It’s Christmas?

Do They Know It’s Christmas? was first released in 1984 to raise money for the famine in Ethiopia. It was re-recorded twice (first in 1989 and then again in 2004) to raise more money for famine relief. The latest version was released last month and has undoubtedly caused a lot of controversy as it aims to respond to the Ebola outbreaks in West Africa.

While the celebrities involved may have had good intentions, their delivery is shoddy and the result is a condescending attempt at charity. Do They Know It’s Christmas? portrays West Africa as a single, poverty-stricken country in peril. The sensationalist message the title, imagery, and lyrics send is that Westerners need to save Africa because it is a place of famine and disease without any joy or hope. The lyrics read:

There’s a world outside your window and it’s a world of dread and fear
Where a kiss of love can kill you
And there’s death in every tear
And the Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom
Well tonight we’re reaching out and touching you
Bring peace and joy this Christmas to West Africa
A song of hope where there’s no hope tonight

The lyrics alone are insulting and erroneous, but coupled with the video, the whole thing is so patronizing. I’m utterly appalled that the producers of the music video decided to show footage of a female Ebola patient being removed (practically dragged) out of her house as the opening scene. How is that okay? Did they get her consent? Was her family involved? Also, the lack of transparency around donations and proceeds is problematic. Money is being kept in the Band Aid Charitable Trust, but the website doesn’t provide any information on exactly how the money will be disbursed and used.

As someone who has suffered a heartbreaking personal loss to Ebola I support all awareness, aid, and relief efforts, but I cannot comprehend how this whole thing came together and I’m quite disappointed in all the celebrities involved. They had the potential to do much better. They could have used their fame and influence to create something like Africa Stop Ebola which provides accurate educational information and gives all proceeds to Medecins Sans Frontieres (an organization that has been on the front lines of the Ebola outbreaks since March). But then again, celebrities and development don’t usually mix well, right? Share your thoughts below.

P.S. – check out this Band Aid 30 spoof created by the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund

Ebola: The Ripple Effects (infographic)

For better or worse, Ebola is becoming old news. Aside from the initial case in Dallas that was transmitted to two nurses, there have been no more cases here in the U.S., and panicked predictions of a massive outbreak causing mayhem and catastrophe never materialized (much like public health experts said they would not – funny how that works).

The outbreak in West Africa is ongoing and continues to be a tragedy on a massive scale that is losing public interest. We previously posted an article by Mary Anne Mercer on lost opportunities and the weaknesses in the healthcare systems that the outbreak has laid bare. Now, the MPH@GW blog has kindly provided an infographic on the outbreak and its collateral damage.


Students: The Importance of Making Meaningful Connections

As Dale Carnegie once said, “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.” The importance of making meaningful connections, or networking, cannot be emphasized enough. However, many people mistakenly think that networking is simply to attend various meetings and hand out business cards. Networking is more than that; it is an art form. In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Carnegie highlights several important networking skills we often tend to ignore, such as smiling, listening, asking questions, and saying a person’s name. These are the “soft” or interpersonal skills that need to be practiced and often reinforced. Knowing how to and being able to network can be the single most powerful way to develop one’s professional network, make connections with people who share similar interests, and build long-last friendship.

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Making Social Justice the Ultimate Goal

In the global health field, we generally understand that investing in health is critical for a nation to prosper. But would you consider a lack of investment in health to be a social injustice?

The United Nations’ Under Secretary-General Michel Sidibe thinks so. In this short interview with CCTV News, he talks about how the Ebola outbreaks in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone have exposed global health failures and explains why health is an investment, not an expenditure.

Prior to watching his interview I’d never really labeled a weak health system as a social injustice in my mind. But health is a right and a shortage of health workers, the inability to provide basic health services, and lack of infrastructure – all of which have become very apparent in the Ebola outbreak – are in fact social injustices. So I think this is a very apt way to label the current situation as it puts a broader lens on the issues and ties everything into the bigger picture of the role of health in society.

His interview made me think of universal health coverage (UHC) because the definition of UHC requires social justice. It addresses the issues of access, equity, and capacity. I wonder if there will be an increased focus on moving towards UHC for the three Ebola-affected countries as part of their rebuilding efforts.

What do you think will be the biggest social justice issues coming out of the Ebola outbreaks? And how do you think we can best address them?

Students, Practice Your Networking Skills at APHA’s 2014 Annual Meeting: Here is How…

Networking can be a daunting task for the young professional, but speaking from experience, it is worth it and a superlative time to perfect this skill-yes, “networking” is a skill- one that you acquire while you are finishing your career as a student.

In today’s professional world, it is becoming less and less about what your resume says and more about who you know. Of course, what you know matters too, but only if you get the interview in the first place. There are many opinions about whether this is a good or a bad thing; regardless it is the reality. In order to make my point I would like to share my personal experiences.

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World Mental Health Day Forum by the Global Mental Health Advocacy Working Group: A Review

photo (2)Guest blogger: Socorro Lopez

Mental illness has proven to be one of society’s greatest invisible burdens, accounting for 4 of the 10 leading causes of disability worldwide. The Global Mental Health Advocacy Working Group recently honored World Mental Health Day by hosting a forum to discuss mental health needs amongst people in humanitarian crises, an extremely vulnerable group in terms of developing and dealing with mental illness.

The event’s panelists included Kelly Clements, the U.S. Department of State’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, Dr. Inka Weissbecker, the Global Mental Health Psychosocial Advisor for the International Medical Corp (IMC), and Dr. James Griffith, the Chairman in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

The discussion touched on three important themes in relation to mental health in emergency settings: the vulnerability of people suffering from mental illness, the critical gap in mental health services, and the detrimental social isolation that the mentally ill are frequently subjected to.

While approximately 10% of a population is traditionally at risk of developing a mental disorder under normal circumstances, this rate has the potential to double during a humanitarian crisis, meaning more people must deal with these disabilities in highly unstable environments. Furthermore, mentally ill individuals are more susceptible to stigma, discrimination, violence, abuse, and human rights violations in these circumstances.
Although there is a vast need for mental health services in emergency settings, there is a significant lack of access to quality care. The number of health professionals who can implement psychosocial interventions that effectively address mental illness is minimal during crises.

“There is a treatment gap between the people who need care and those who receive it,” said Dr. Weissbecker, who has monitored IMC’s mental health and psychosocial programs in countries such as South Sudan, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Syria, and Afghanistan.

A lack of healthcare professionals and mental health services often means that the burden of care for a mentally ill individual is placed on their families. Unfortunately, mental disorders are still fundamentally misunderstood around the world, causing many communities to be ill equipped to properly care for a portion of their citizens. In the absence of related health services, families resort to harmful traditional health practices that stem from local beliefs. These practices regularly call for extreme measures, such as chaining the mentally ill to trees or institutionalizing them in inept facilities, to isolate people dealing with mental disorders from the rest of the community.

By acting as natural buffers to instability and prejudice, Dr. James Griffith discussed the vital role that local caregivers, families and communities can play in treating mental illness. In accordance with this line of thought, IMC programs have integrated community involvement into their programs by hosting educational seminars that utilize local volunteers to raise awareness and social consideration for mental illness.

The panelists also addressed how this knowledge could be applied to two topics that have been making recent headlines: Ebola and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In terms of treating mental illness within extremist groups such as ISIS, the panelists were quick to correct the misconception that violence can commonly be associated with mental illness, a stereotype creating stigma and driving discrimination. According to the American Psychiatric Association, “the vast majority of people who are violent do not suffer from mental illness.”

In relation to Ebola, preventing and treating mental illness proved to be more applicable. In order to diminish emotional and psychological trauma, Weissbecker discussed the need to provide more education to people who contract the disease and their families, in order to decrease debilitating fear and prevent transmission. Reintegration services should also be offered to survivors who may be treated differently once they return to their communities. Finally, it is important to find ways to safely bury the dead, while ensuring that burials are still culturally significant.

Addressing mental health in emergencies is undoubtedly a multifaceted and complicated health challenge. Nevertheless, increased rates of mental disorders and the potential social ramifications of having such illnesses illustrate that mental illness in humanitarian crises is an urgent issue for global health. Reducing the current treatment gap and increasing communities’ understanding of mental disorders are two of the most promising tactics to improve the health status of the mentally ill in these situations. In doing so, devastating disability and demoralizing hardship can be prevented in populations that have already experienced immeasurable adversity in their lives.

Socorro Lopez is an undergraduate at the George Washington University, majoring in environmental studies and minoring in public health and geographic information systems. Her interests include environmental, reproductive, and global health. Prior to working at the American Public Health Association (APHA) as a Global Health Intern, she was part of the Collegiate Leaders in Environmental Health (CLEH) program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Socorro is originally from Roatan, Honduras and recently returned from Tanzania, where she was studying coastal ecology and doing research on water quality.