Lasting Legacy of the McGill-Ethiopia Community Health Project: Q&A with Charles Larson

We catch up with Charles Larson, MDCM, Interim Director of McGill’s Global Health Programs, ahead of the May 18 panel discussion looking back on the project from the 80s and 90s. Dr. Larson joined the McGill-Ethiopia Community Health Project (MECHP) in 1987 and became its director from 1989 until 1992. The Lasting Legacy of the McGill-Ethiopia Community Health Project panel is part of Global Health Week, a McGill Bicentennial Signature event.

  1. Could you briefly summarize the project with a focus on what was its purpose, and what it was setting out to achieve?

It helps to place the MECHP in context. In 1979, the World Health Organization ratified the Global Strategy for Health for All by 2000, with an emphasis on strengthening primary health care, both preventive and curative. By the mid-1980s, it was apparent the strategy was failing as a result of weak management skills among those in leadership positions. The Ethiopia Ministry of Health recognized this weakness and sought a partnership with McGill to establish training programs with the aim of devolution of primary care health services through the training of district health managers and strengthening the two-year MPH degree program at Addis Ababa University.

  1. Why did you choose to get involved in the project?

As I expect with any of us, the project represented a unique opportunity to play a meaningful role in responding to the tremendous health disparities found among low-income countries, of which Ethiopia had been enduring the highest. Furthermore, the aims of the project matched well with the skills we could bring and share with our Ethiopian colleagues addressing capacity building, management of health services and applied research.

  1. Are there any lessons from the project that you still apply today?

There are many. Maintaining a sense of humility and openness to learn from our Ethiopian colleagues stands out. Additionally, the heterogeneous cultures found in all societies and the need for sensitivity and to adjust accordingly was a tremendous challenge, but an equally important learning experience. Finally, to not look only at the positive, but be aware of the inevitable unintended consequences any large-scale public health program will encounter.

  1. Do you have any final thoughts, memories, or anecdotes about the project or partnership that you would like to share?

Having lived in Ethiopia for six years, the project and the country have had a lasting impact. In particular, the personal relationships stand out and, sadly, the loss of outstanding talented colleagues to the HIV epidemic. I travelled a fair bit on my own to meet with my students during their fieldwork assignments as district health managers. As a result, I experienced the incredible beauty and splendour of Ethiopia which I recall nearly daily, even after 30 years!

The May 18 Lasting Legacy of the McGill-Ethiopia Community Health Project event will feature an expert panel of global health researchers who were closely involved in the project – Abdulaziz Addus Adish, Richard Cruess, Joyce Pickering, David Zakus and Charles Larson – and the debut screening of a 5-minute mini-documentary.  Learn more about Global Health week and register for the panel.

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