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Mali civil war and health care needs dominate talk

Despite the conflict, the Mali Health Organizing Project brings health care to mothers and children

Working in Mali during the country’s ongoing civil war has been a “challenging context … but also a fascinating one,” said Kris Ansin, executive director of the Mali Health Organizing Project, in a talk Tuesday night.

Ansin said he hopes MHOP can take advantage of the unique timing to make an even more positive impact.

MHOP was founded by Caitlin Cohen ’08 in 2006 with a mission to improve maternal and child health sustainability in Bamako, Mali’s capital. Ansin spoke along with Assistant Professor of Economics Anja Sautmann to a small group of listeners in Wilson 105.

MHOP provides health care directly to children and mothers using funding from private donors and fundraising and advocacy groups like its Brown chapter. Though rich in natural resources, Mali has the second-highest infant mortality rate in the world, according to the CIA World Factbook, and suffers from widespread poverty and poor infrastructure. Many foreign governments cut off aid to the country after a March 2012 coup that saw a shift in power and a subsequent civil war.

Ansin’s talk focused on how the situation on the ground has evolved over the past month and how the conflict has affected MHOP’s efforts. He detailed the positive reception French troops received after their intervention enabled the liberation of several northern cities from separatist forces, and he described how his organization aided some families who fled from the north to Bamako after the war began.

After being forced out of the cities, the separatists have resorted to protracted guerilla warfare in Mali’s mountainous regions, which may have consequences for MHOP, Ansin said.

“First and foremost, we have to pay more attention to security than we ever did,” Ansin said, adding that the possible withdrawal of French forces is a looming concern for the organization. Nevertheless, he said Bamako has been untouched by the violence in the north so far.

Mohamed Traore, a community member born in Mali who still has family in the country’s north and south, asked whether MHOP has any plans to extend its services to people in the north affected by the conflict. Ansin responded that it is certainly a possibility as long as the group’s original goals can continue to be met.

After the event, Traore told The Herald he was pleased with the conversation, adding that he was “really glad to see that both the speakers have a good grasp on the reality of the north (of Mali).” He said MHOP’s work is useful in that it addresses the people most vulnerable to health concerns: women and children.

For Sautmann, the civil war came at the worst possible time. She is currently in the midst of conducting a study on MHOP’s efforts that she says will provide data on the effectiveness of free health care in economically depressed regions. She said her study was on track for funding from the U.S. government, but the civil war has delayed the process indefinitely.

“The motivation for (the study) is a really longstanding debate in health policy, which is: Should poor countries have health systems where people pay for the care, or where the care is free?” Sautmann described. The broadly accepted notion is that private health care is more effective than free care provided by poor governments, despite the hardship on poor families, she said. But an increasing number of health organizations are challenging this assertion, she said.

The first round of data on a group of Malians was collected last fall, before they received help from MHOP. The second round will be gathered this fall after they have received medical help. Despite the challenges the civil war has posed for her study, Sautmann said she is determined to continue anyway, saying the project “will get done, somehow.”

Yuki Davis ’15, co-president of the Brown chapter of MHOP, helped organize the event. She said Brown students should be concerned about the health situation in Mali because as such an impoverished nation, its people are in dire need of tangible support from organizations like MHOP.

Davis said she hopes some good can come of the civil war. “As unfortunate as the whole crisis is, it’s definitely putting the media attention to Mali that otherwise would not be apparent in the area,” she said.


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