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Bentley TLN Members Engage Global Health Problems in Africa
Global health issues are no abstraction when you live and work alongside African villagers in urgent need of food, water, and basic sanitation, according to Bentley professors who have spent more than a decade engaged with such communities.
Recently Bentley’s Health Thought Leadership Network, which advances impactful research in health and healthcare, supported the innovative work of two faculty members. Both are engaged in transformative work in Africa. In interviews, they share the philosophy behind their work and the passion that drives it.
Laurel Steinfield, an assistant professor of marketing at Bentley University, is deeply involved in fieldwork in Eastern Africa. “I see my work as drawing on interdisciplinary methods to address multiple dimensions of poverty that affect people’s lives, including poverty in income, health, time, or mental well-being,” she says.
One of her current projects in Kenya explores how science and technology can have a positive effect on subsistence consumers and their livelihoods, particularly in agricultural communities. Bentley’s Health TLN, itself a network of more than 40 faculty and staff across 18 departments bridging traditional boundaries in healthcare, provided funding for summer fieldwork.
In collaboration with biologists, agriculturalists, and community partners, Steinfield is studying the impact of several low-tech tools on household well-being, including: a farming implement to improve crop yields; water ponds to nourish kitchen gardens, improve household diets and offset dependency on cash crops; and a solar cooker to boil water and heat food, decreasing the time-poverty that disproportionately effects women. She believes that replicable social innovations are a key part of the solution to the food-water-conflict crises arising from climate change. “Securing food and water is not just about personal health, but also about community health: making communities more resilient to drought and famine can reduce conflict and civil wars.”
“The natural and human worlds are very interdependent. Yet for so long in academia, we’ve tended to work in silos. We’re seeing a shift away from that now,” she says. “We have to work together to resolve these grand challenges in development.”
As a transformative consumer researcher, Steinfield specializes in female entrepreneurism, economic empowerment, and gender injustices. Her work identifies and critiques how the global marketplace perpetuate injustices, and explores practices to improve the livelihood of consumers impacted by them.
Among other things, Diane Kellogg, an associate professor of management at Bentley University, is committed to providing safe sanitation on a global scale. “The depth of the crisis is immense. People need clean household toilets. The makeshift solutions promote disease transmission, and rob people of their dignity,” she says.
She promotes toilets that don’t require sewer pipes, electricity or water, and markets them to local governments and landlords in urban poor Ghana.
Kellogg recently drew on the support of Bentley’s Health TLN for a study of the pre-installation health conditions in one rural community in Ghana. She is tracking how household toilets can reduce health problems, such as intestinal worms and diarrhea, in children. “We need to get people talking about why toilets matter, and ‘data is dynamite.’ People get it when they see the numbers,” she says.
The Health TLN has also helped her find volunteers for a World Toilet Day 2017 project, Sanitation Wikipedia. That’s the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance effort to upgrade WASH – water, sanitation, hygiene – articles on Wikipedia.
“There’s a lot to do,” says Kellogg. “If we succeed, all the major WASH organizations will be upgrading articles relevant to their work.” She recruits student volunteers to work alongside organizations like UN Water, the Toilet Board Coalition, Oxfam and WaterAid.
One word that both Kellogg and Steinfield often use is respect. They believe a collaborative process of engagement sits at the heart of international development work.
“When you go to Africa, you’re not trying to save communities or pretend that you have the answer. You’re trying to understand the problems at hand and create solutions together,” says Steinfield. “In some communities, people may sing songs, share hugs, and welcome you as one of them. You’re cultivating relationships, and that engagement is really important for any of these projects to work. You need to learn from each other.”
Kellogg agrees. “These lessons in intercultural collaboration and respect last a lifetime.”