Monthly Archives July 2021

EADI ISS Conference 2021 | Questioning development: What lies ahead?

EADI ISS Conference 2021 | Questioning development: What lies ahead?

Development Studies requires “an epistemological and ontological change”, write Elisabetta Basile and Isa Baud in the introduction to the recent EADI volume ‘Building Development Studies for a New Millennium’. The ...

EADI ISS Conference 2021 | For the redistribution of water, framing matters!

EADI ISS Conference 2021 | For the redistribution of water, framing matters!

In the face of increasing pressure on global water resources, a degree of inventiveness in finding just and sustainable ways to ensure access to water is required. The redistribution of ...

Can a global ‘vaccine citizenship’ help us move toward an inclusive pandemic-free space?

The dire shortage of COVID-19 vaccines across low- and middle-income countries is a strong indicator of global health injustice in recent times. Vaccine hoarding by affluent countries, for example the USA or Canada, is causing vaccine apartheid, and global policy responses thus far fall short in failing to save the world from this catastrophic moral failure. While the political and economic relationship of vaccine production and distribution is dominating the discussion, it’s the socio-cultural dynamics of the COVID-19 vaccine that put global governance in a fix.

Martin Sanchez (Unsplash)

The absence of a standardised treatment protocol and the current impossibility of eradicating the COVID-19 virus projects the COVID-19 vaccine as a new hope, not only for preventing infection, but also for restoring the sense of physical  and mental wellbeing that was eroded when lockdowns were imposed and then extended worldwide. For society at large, vaccines promise a return to a free social, economic, and political life – the ‘old normal’. Thus, the vaccine represents a new type of ‘cure’ – one that would ‘fix’ all the pandemic-induced abnormalities in our daily lives.

This new ‘culture of cure’ has a profound impact on policy making at the national level. Ever since the search for a possible vaccine started in earnest last year, several vaccines have been developed, of which some are showing potential. But the vaccines are now being viewed and used politically as social medicines to ‘cure’ ‘pandemic ills’ that are largely linked to a life under lockdown. The vaccine when viewed as a social medicine creates a sense of confidence of being able to both prevent infection and also ‘unlock’ society that has been ‘imprisoned’ by pandemic-imposed restrictions. Therefore, in the policy-making process, a vaccine moves from being a preventive medicine to being a social medicine.

Vaccine nationalism and a return to sovereignty?

National leaders have taken this transformation as an opportunity to re-establish the eroded social contract in their jurisdictions. For political leaders, the large-scale vaccination of citizens signals a pathway toward combating pandemic-induced discontent. Vaccine nationalism, in which countries compete in arranging vaccines for its citizens, has become a way, especially for affluent countries, to ensure that citizens regain trust in governments. However, this competitive nationalism over the vaccine has been creating an abysmal shortage of vaccines in many other low- and middle-income countries.

The resulting vaccine inequity scripts the failure of global health governance in two distinct ways. First, it prevents nations from establishing a global coordination framework for the equitable distribution of vaccines. This is evident in the case of COVAX. Second, it fails to govern the market at the time of emergency to safeguard the interests of the people. The reluctance of a few pharmaceutical companies to share knowledge on vaccines with manufacturers, also those in developing countries, is a case in point. This means that the majority of vaccines are being developed and used in the Global North.

While vaccine nationalism has indeed had many ramifications when it comes to global ‘vaccine equity’, most of them negative, these two failures have created a new form of global mobilisation. This may only overtly appear as an alliance of  less advanced countries pushing for a waiver of an agreement called TRIPS that currently upholds COVID-19 vaccine patents. The suspension of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) signed by World Trade Organisation members would help make the products and technologies needed to fight COVID-19 more freely available during the course of pandemic.

More importantly, the collective demand for the TRIPS waiver is also a new treaty-in-making that questions the role of knowledge in vaccine production and capital formation. This is a culture of counterpolitics in international relations that opposes the primacy of knowledge protection as an intangible asset over human lives.

Opposing vaccine inequity

Interestingly, this politics is not driven by national leaders as in the case of vaccine nationalism, but by the people themselves. Beyond the politics of a TRIPS waiver, there is a politics of breaking a knowledge monopoly that is instrumental in ideating a socially shared space of a pandemic-free territory. This imagined territory is for vaccinated people only. So those deprived of vaccines across the world have reasonably claimed that patented knowledge is a barrier in the ‘access to vaccine’ and thus ‘access to a pandemic-free territory’. This irrefutably triggers the current global outcry against ‘Big Pharmas’ and has been followed by domestic public actions. The Indian government for example had to halt vaccine exports despite diplomatic commitments to assuage the anger of people in the aftermath of second wave of the virus and a nationwide vaccine shortage.

But governments are also rallying to redress global vaccine inequity. Members of a bloc of some 62 countries (with India and South Africa driving it) are pursuing the sharing of vaccine-related knowledge. They are very well aware of the exclusiveness of pandemic-free territories in the current global order and are thus in the process of negotiating with international organisations and actors, especially the WTO, to be considered   ‘entitled’ to the knowledge needed to manufacture vaccines.

Vaccine citizenship

This politics of vaccine entitlement is globally producing a new social category of vaccine citizens. Unlike vaccine nationalism, vaccine citizenship is a global citizenship not linked to nationality, with members from all over the world that collectively seek to quash the virus and its related social and economic effects by working together. Vaccine citizens are seen to struggle against the global knowledge-capital nexus.

Hence, vaccine nationalism driven by states is dividing the world, while vaccine citizenship driven by the general public who seem to be desiring a more equitable and accessible pandemic-free space that is not confined to state borders may help redress global inequities that have emerged alongside the COVID-19 pandemic. Only time will tell what the long-term effects of this people’s alliance will be in the global distribution of the vaccine. It might permanently change the global order. And rightly so!

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question

About the author:

Amitabha Sarkar holds a Ph.D. in Health from the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). He is a scholar of international development of health politics and is currently associated with the Transnational Institute (TNI).

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How unified resistance efforts within and across borders can help restore democracy in Myanmar

How unified resistance efforts within and across borders can help restore democracy in Myanmar

The coup d'état that took place in Myanmar in February this year led to a global outcry as the junta took over the country’s government. But despite massive and enduring ...

EADI ISS Conference 2021 | COVID-19: solidarity as counter-narrative to crisis capitalism

EADI ISS Conference 2021 | COVID-19: solidarity as counter-narrative to crisis capitalism

The absence of serious measures to protect citizens from the COVID-19 virus in countries such as India and Brazil, as well as vaccine grabbing by countries in the Global North, ...

17th Development Dialogue| Communicating research differently: how a comic strip is bringing the everyday struggles of Somaliland’s Uffo to life

Researchers and non-researchers alike can learn much about and draw inspiration from the everyday struggles of ordinary people in difficult contexts. Yet such stories that we hear when working with communities engaged in the pursuit of social justice or emancipation often go untold or are overlooked. A comic strip about acts of civil resistance in Somaliland shows just how powerful such visual imagery can be in communicating lived experiences of struggles, writes Ebba Tellander.

Illustration: Pat Masioni, PositiveNegatives

In the early 1980s, the people of Hargeisa, Somaliland suffered greatly. The negligence of the Siad Barre regime and the 1977/78 war with Ethiopia meant that the city’s residents did not have adequate access to basic services such as electricity, sanitation, and health care. At the same time, political oppression dominated life in northwest Somalia. Despite the possible consequences of blatantly opposing the government, a group of young professionals, including teachers, engineers, and doctors, set out to change the state of things by volunteering to help the people of Somaliland. They started in 1981 by cleaning and refurbishing the Hargeisa Group Hospital – at their own expense and in their own time. They saw it both as a form of humanitarian assistance responding to the acute suffering of patients due to the lack of a properly functioning hospital, and as a way of resisting the oppressive policies of the regime. Through their humanitarian action they were illuminating the negligence of the government in the health sector, mobilising people in the community to take care of themselves when the government wouldn’t, and showing them that they could act independently from the government.

To create more awareness about the oppressive polices, two of the professionals also wrote a newsletter called ‘Uffo’, which means ‘the sweet-smelling wind before the rain’. The meaning seemed to have foreshadowed what happened next. When the professionals were arrested a few months later and faced the risk of execution, this became the spark that ignited and inspired others, especially secondary school students and women, to oppose the regime openly on the streets. Today, the protests that took place are remembered as the Dhagax Tuur, which means ‘stone throwing’, and are regarded as the beginning of the resistance movement that continued for years afterward and eventually led to downfall of the authoritarian regime.

Despite the Uffo story’s historical importance, it is not widely known; instead, narratives of crisis, conflict, and violence dominate reports on the situation in the Horn of Africa, where Somaliland lies. These narratives are perpetuated by journalists, NGO personnel, and researchers alike. Reports on the Somali region in particular are typically focused on themes such as piracy, terrorism, war, and state failure. One consequence of such a limited focus is that ordinary people are portrayed either as perpetrators or as passive victims. This gives a flawed picture that downplays essential parts of the human experience, including those that provide a glimmer of hope, such as the courage and creativity of those who struggle, as well as their care for others. For my doctoral research I therefore chose to focus on the case of Uffo to highlight the tales and self-awareness of those people who act collectively to counter violence and oppression. I found a story that should not go unheard. And so I sought a way to make sure that it would be heard.

To communicate this story to new and larger audiences, I have been part of a production team of producers, storytellers, artists, and researchers who over the past years have created a comic in five parts. The comic is available in both English and Somali (read it here). I am part of a larger research team at Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) that is committed to exploring the power of visual storytelling in research through a collaboration with the organisation PositiveNegatives that produces educational comics to raise awareness about social and humanitarian issues across the globe.

Comics and animations are particularly suitable for communicating lived experiences and sensitive themes, including topics such as love, torture, and mental health. It is easier for a larger group of people to recognise themselves in animated characters when compared to other visual formats such as photographs and films. In addition, comics can easily be translated into many different languages and spread on social media. Thus, they can reach people who normally do not read academic texts or policy reports.

How did we create this comic strip?

These comics were created in a collaborative manner that allowed the professionals and other research participants to tell their stories. The production team met the Uffo professionals in Hargeisa to discuss the comic before it was developed into a first draft. They were then given the opportunity to provide feedback during several crucial steps in the production process. The Uffo professionals have been very enthusiastic about the project throughout the process.

The artwork was created by established Congolese artist Pat Masioni who was personally inspired by the story. His 1980s comic style was a perfect fit with the Uffo story. To stay true to the story, Pat Masioni used historical photographs and pictures that I had taken during my fieldwork to create the artwork.

The process of creating a comic based on research and in such a collaborative manner is time-consuming, but the whole team stayed committed to the importance of communicating this story in a nuanced way that resonated with the stories of the professionals.[1]

What’s the comic about?

The comic strip powerfully illustrates the role of agency in challenging circumstances. Those who read all five chapters will know how Uffo invented astonishing ways to survive and stay sane during their harsh prison sentences (note: Tolstoy’s fans will be pleasantly surprised). There are many such smaller parts of the story that capture the professionals’ care for each other as well as their capacity to create light in the dark, which is a common thread throughout the whole series. These stories can be transformative in themselves, as they have the power to inspire and show us what is possible in otherwise bleak situations.

When the comics were launched, Dr Tani from the Uffo group was interviewed by BBC Africa. Several of the Uffo professionals were later granted political asylum in countries such as the UK, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, and the US. I therefore wish for the comic to be read by people living in those countries, as it will give us a better understanding of the lives of fellow citizens with refugee backgrounds.

I also wish for the comics to be read by youth in Somaliland and by diaspora. While I was conducting the research in Somaliland, I got involved in the process of creating a 13-episode TV program about Uffo in Hargeisa in 2018 together with Star TV. I followed journalists to universities and other public spaces where they were asking people on the street whether they had heard of Uffo. Very few had. One contributing reason is the country’s cautious approach to bringing up painful memories from the past, which could contribute to division. However, the story of Uffo is not only a painful one, but also carries messages of hope and strength, which I noticed inspired the young women and men I worked with in Hargeisa, most of whom had not heard the Uffo story before.[2]

All in all, this exercise has shown that engaged researchers not only can contribute to social change through the findings and insights generated by their research, but also through the ripple effects of the research process itself and from the stories that are being illuminated. It’s up to researchers to find out how to do this and to actively seek to create waves through their research.

[1] The production of the comic was informed by rigorous research, including in-depth interviews with the Uffo professionals and people who participated in the protests, many of them women. As part of the research process, the interview data has been triangulated with archival data such as human rights reports, political poetry and the trial protocol from 1982.

[2] Thanks go to Nasra Daahir Raage, Shukri Sagal Ali, Yasmin Gedi, Abdifatah Omar, Wahiba Ismail, Mohamud Ismail, Nasra Sagal, Hadiya Sayid Ali and Hassan Sayid Ali Daoud for their excellent research assistance.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question

About the author:

Ebba Tellander is a doctoral researcher at the Peace Research Institute of Oslo and International Institute of Social Studies within the TRANSFORM project. She researches people’s motivations and actions when initiating collective action and civil resistance in repressive settings, focusing on the case of Uffo. For her research, she also took part in the production of a 13-episode TV series about the Uffo.


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17th Development Dialogue | A call to end the ‘social distancing’ of the sciences – in the COVID-19 era and beyond

17th Development Dialogue | A call to end the ‘social distancing’ of the sciences – in the COVID-19 era and beyond

The chasm that separates the different scientific disciplines remains deep as ever despite the evident need to address pressing global problems through transdisciplinary collaboration. C. Sathyamala and Peter A.G. van ...