Masters Student Recognizes Need to Identify Technical Needs for Successful Health Programming
What can a former middle school teacher in North Carolina understand about health workers struggling under an outbreak of Ebola in West Africa? Ebola devastated many West African countries in 2014–2015. Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia were the most affected, with 28,610 cases and 10,808 deaths by March 2016. Deaths weren’t the only impact: national health systems were overwhelmed. As a result, MEASURE Evaluation, a $180 million project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), was asked to work in all three countries to help the governments improve their health systems in the wake of the outbreak.
The work performed by the MEASURE Evaluation technical experts embedded in each country entailed a needs assessment, strategic planning and technical assistance during and after their embedment.
My assignment was to write a desk review to compare the work MEASURE Evaluation did in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. I quickly realized that, for those working in these countries, it was difficult to focus on strengthening the health information system if the facilities did not have access to reliable technology and internet service, and if health workers didn’t have the skills to accomplish their goals. This is when I began to understand the true importance of technical assistance—called capacity building—and its similarity to classroom teaching.
Although this was my first assignment at MEASURE Evaluation, this connection to education put me immediately on familiar ground. It reminded me of the two years I spent as a middle school science teacher and the strategies teachers use every day. If a student did not have the ability to complete a task right away, I did not continue to ask them to complete it, which would frustrate them, nor did I give up on the student. I gave them extra assistance, often employing a tool called scaffolding—essentially helping students practice smaller skills that build their ability to complete the larger task. That’s capacity building.
Being able to make this connection to my experience has also made me realize how relevant it could be to my future. When formulating the desk review, I read many project-related documents and spoke with those who worked in-country. They helped me realize that although each country had the same end goal, the progress they could make depended on the context and capacity. For example, Liberia already had a functioning health information system; Guinea’s health information system was weakly functioning; and Sierra Leone’s health information system was just being established.
These realizations will continue to inform my work long after the review has been published. I’m studying maternal and child health in the Masters of Public Health program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After graduation, I will work on the ground level to increase the health and quality of life for children and their families through education and other programming.
Although I will be working domestically, the lessons learned from West Africa work the same. The United States is not a monolith. Rural North Carolina has different needs and context than southern California. It’s important to consider both context and capacity—even here—in order to have successful and useful health programming. That’s how to make the greatest impact on the people we’re trying to help.
Read “Five Questions with Daijah Street Davis” from UNC Gillings School of Public Health.