Making the most of the Arab Spring

Kathryn Strachan

Kathryn Strachan

Freelance health and development journalist working in Johannesburg

 Research for health has traditionally received little attention in the Arab world. And the extent to which the situation that has followed last year’s ‘Arab spring’ is influencing the region’s agenda for health research was discussed in a session at the Forum 2012 meeting.

In particular, several speakers pointed out that people in the Arab world now have a voice – and that this presents an opportunity to change the way decisions about both health research and development are made.

According to Hassen Ghannem, professor of medicine at the university hospital Farhat Hached in Sousse, Tunisia, people in his country were now asking about issues that had been accepted without questions in the past.

“The main message from Tunisia is to listen to the population,” he said. People were now demanding answers from policymakers. This created an opportunity to change that way decisions were made, and to place research at the centre of those decisions.

Fouad M Fouad, co-ordinator of the Syrian Centre for Tobacco Studies, said that in an emergency situation, where there was no food or proper sanitation, the place of research was not always clear.

Virtually no research had been carried out in Syria in peaceful times, he said. But the current conflict in the country had brought a renewed need for research on questions such as why vaccination rates had fallen over the past year.

“This should keep us motivated to work harder for research. We should keep going, even when we are in such a shaky position, and work together for change,” he said.

Francisco Becerra, the head of projects at the Council on Health Research for Development (COHRED), said change in Egypt had to be about more than replacing one group of leaders with another.

Political leaders had to listen to the voice of the people. Otherwise the previous neglect of the needs of the population would be repeated, and the opportunity for changing society would be lost.

Other speakers pointed out that the changes sweeping across the Arab world had brought opportunities at every level. But there was a danger that previous hard-won gains – such as progress in women‘s rights – could be lost if they were not adequately protected.

“We have achieved a lot in the past in the areas such as reproductive health, informed choice, and family law, but now the old language is reappearing again,” Hoda Rashad, director of the Social Research Centre at the American University of Cairo, Egypt told the meeting.

“In people’s excitement with the new revolution, they want to cut all ties to the past, and this includes throwing out all the achievements that have been made over the past few years.”

It was essential for researchers to remain aware of the complexities of the issues that they faced, and to have informed debates about them. Otherwise there was a risk that progress made in women’s rights and in health equity would be lost.

This blog post is part of our Forum 2012 coverage — which takes place 24–26 April 2012. 

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