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The Tuna Problem in Global Health Research

January 28, 2014

“We have a tuna problem in global health research,” a colleague of said to me a few weeks ago relaying what she had heard in Kenya the week before. At first, I couldn’t imagine what on earth tuna had to do with global health, so I asked her what she was talking about. 

“If you ask a fisherman on Lake Victoria if they like tuna, they will look at you very confused.  They have never seen tuna and have no idea what it is.  They either will give you an answer that is meaningless or simply not answer at all,” she said.  

“If you really want to know what a fisherman thinks about tuna, you need to build some bridges. You have to tell him that tuna is a kind of fish, and it is an oily fish that provides lots of food.  As the conversation goes on and he learns about tuna and you learn about how he understand fish, he will begin to form an opinion about the tuna.” 

“Global health innovation is a lot like tuna, both for researchers and communities.  The researchers must come to understand the communities and learn to listen to them.   The communities need to understand both the research process and technology under development.”

To create partnerships with communities in global health research, we need to build bridges so that the process of mutual learning can take place.  The community will have the opportunity to share their perspectives about emerging technologies, and the research teams can listen and respond to their concerns.  We build effective bridges by creating and sustaining quality relationships with our community partners.

What do these relationships do?

First these relationships help researchers develop products that people want to use. Often there is distance between those creating technologies and those who stand to benefit from those products.

Over the course of research, communities get to use products and see how it affects their lives, and whether it improves their lives and solves problems, or doesn’t. If the relationships are there, the research team can also participate in this process, learning along with the community about what is working and what isn’t, and feed that back into the development process.

Not only does this process create better technologies, but it also fosters trust and respect between the research team and community.  By investing the time to listen to communities, the research teams acknowledge that the communities are the core partners in global health research process.  It acknowledges that it is their perspectives and concerns need to be understood if we are going to tackle these problems together.

Building bridges with the community and beyond

Ultimately, it is not just researchers and host communities who face tuna problems. With the pace of technology development in global health research, it is also regulators, governments, and NGOs who face a tuna problem, and need to be brought in as partners in global health research.  When we build bridges in global health research, it is not just with communities, but will all of the diverse stakeholders in global health research.

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