Siri Tellier holds a Master’s from the Harvard School of Public Health, has decades of experience in the field, and brings this international context to the DIS classroom. As the faculty for Health Beyond Borders, Siri’s professional background and anecdotes intensify the topic of global health, and the many connections that come with it. Read her interview below, to find out more about Siri and her current reflections on pressing global health affairs happening right now.
DIS: Siri, you have been working as a faculty at DIS for five years now. How does your Danish context of global health compare or contrast to the American perspective that DIS students bring to your classroom?
Actually, my context is less Danish than international, since most of my experience has been with international organizations such as the UN or Red Cross. The main new perspective for American students I think is that I bring a lot of practical experience from a wide variation of situations – the great differences among different countries, in disasters as well as in peaceful times, both at policy and practical field level. That diversity I find is novel to many students.
DIS: You have 40 years of experience in international health programs, have lived overseas, and have worked in many different contexts within the field. Can you tell us about your professional background, and where you have lived?
My education is a Masters from Harvard School of Public Health in 1979. My work experience, as mentioned above, is quite varied. I have lived in about a dozen countries, but the most long term working situations have been in Afghanistan, China and North Korea (a.k.a. DPRK). Also assignments of shorter durations in a number of African countries.
DIS: Can you describe the work you did in Afghanistan, China, and North Korea?
In Afghanistan, China and DPRK (aka North Korea) I was the head of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) office. In Afghanistan (in 1977-79) one of my main tasks was supporting the first and so far only population census, in China and DPRK I also worked on the census, but the main work in China was to work on a reform of the family planning program. I worked in China a total of 7 years (1980-81 and 2002-2006), and in DPRK on and off over a longer period. In DPRK one of the main tasks was to try to improve on the health situation, which deteriorated very quickly during the periods of hunger in the 1990s.
DIS: How do you bring these experiences into the DIS classroom?
I myself learn a lot from anecdotal evidence – some situation where I had that famous ‘AHA!’ moment. So I tell the class about that personal experience. I started telling about those anecdotes in a very low key manner, but students tell me that is one of the most useful parts of my lectures, so now I use many of those stories.
DIS: Can you share an example of an ‘aha’ moment?
The experiences at community level are always the most moving. For example, a village in Bolivia where World Bank water engineers asked the villagers to draw maps of their traditional water sources. The villagers complied, but when the engineers said “thank you” and wanted to take the maps, the villagers said, “NO – these are OUR maps. We need them for our planning.” In other words – those wonderful moments where you see ’empowerment’ and realize how practical and feasible it is.
DIS: Ebola is currently spreading rapidly throughout west Africa, and there is serious risk that it could spread unpredictably beyond borders and globally. In your opinion, how is this crisis being perceived and how is it being addressed?
Rather a big question! If we take just one set of point of view, namely the global health leaders such as Peter Piot, Margaret Chan, Bruce Aylward, Tom Frieden, they all seem to think this is an unprecedented crisis, and that we are not doing enough. It is also such a strong reminder that we need to strengthen the health systems of the countries most concerned – it is heart breaking to see how it is affecting countries like Sierra Leoone, Guinea and Liberia, all of which have gone through very turbulent histories, and where recent progress now seems ruined. That is a catastrophe for those countries, but also a reminder that global health is really global – what happens in a far away country today can influence your daily life tomorrow.
DIS: You teach the DIS course, Health Beyond Borders. Have you used this current example of Ebola in class to understand the politics of global health?
Of course. Who could not let an example like that go away. I usually try to use current events, but this one is overwhelming. Students tell their personal experiences or comments on the news, and we try to draw links to the material we have discussed in other parts of the course.
There are of course also major differences – including that HIV is much less contagious (is not transmitted by casual contact), and that it takes much longer before symptoms become noticeable. As is true for most epidemics, there is a huge emotional factor, and a risk that the blame game will be played. So yes, why not. As Kierkegaard says (more or less) – unfortunately we live life forwards and understand it backwards. So only time will tell.
DIS: Can you tell us about some of the field studies that you take your Health Beyond Borders students on during the semester? We heard you were recently at the UN.
Yes, I try to give students some views of the organizations involved in global health, also as possible future career opportunities. We were planning to go to the Danish branches of the Red Cross or Medecins Sans Frontieres, but both those organizations are ebola-ed out. So I am hoping to go to Copenhagen University to listen to a public health hero who is a colleague of mine. But not quite confirmed! That is the reality of global health.