The velvet glove of humanitarian biomedicine

Very interesting post, Andy. I’d be interested in hearing more on the issue of the moralist (and perhaps moralizing) nature of public health discourse in a moment, but before that, let me put pressure on a different aspect of the politics of eliding the distinction between these two dimensions of global public health discourse. It strikes me that one of the purposes of the elision is to facilitate the extension of (yes, biomedical, but perhaps not just biomedical) surveillance technologies of the Global North into the Global South, for reasons that primarily benefit the Global North, but that come cloaked with the moral aura of benefiting the South (even though, as you point out, it’s not so clear that these surveillances really do help the South much). In other words, it seems to me that the conflation of these two discourse serves political interests of the Global North, not least by masking important gradients of political power. Is this right, or am I just displaying too much of a hermeneutic of suspicion?

I’m wondering whether you have any specific examples you can think of that either support or refute this perspective on the political function of global public health discourse(s). For example, have you seen, for example, implied quid pro quos, e.g. public health officials who suggest that “If you want our humanitarian biomedicine, then you must accept our security-related biosurveillance in other areas?” More alarmingly, have we seen instances where data collected for ostensible “bio-security” reasons turns out to be used (or at least useful) for pursuing other “security” agendas? Specifically, can we anticipate a “Project Camelotmoment” for global public health, where it turns out that data ostensibly being collected for “value neutral,” “scientific” reasons — or even “value positive,” “humanitarian” reasons — turn out to be getting used by, say, military planners with a very different set of objectives?

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About Nils Gilman

Nils Gilman is an historian at the University of California, Berkeley. In addition to coediting Humanity, he is the author of Mandarins of the Future: Modernization Theory in Cold War America (Johns Hopkins, 2003) and many other publications on technology, security, and economic development.

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