Research story

Can we measure solidarity?

There are often calls for solidarity in times of global health emergencies, but a lack of accountability at the international level. Dr Caesar Atuire’s discovery research project could provide the tools needed to address this.

Five twisted measuring tapes unravelling.

 Jack Cole / Wellcome

Licence: All Rights Reserved

Caesar Atuire

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Can we measure solidarity?
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During the pandemic, there were countless appeals to solidarity. 

On the local level, we were asked to stay inside to protect others, or to go to the shops for our neighbours. And I think we can say that this solidarity was being practised. 

But on the global level, the picture is more complicated. 

International bodies called for solidarity in sharing PPE (personal protective equipment) and other equipment, or vaccine development and distribution.   

Even if these words were meant, what we actually saw was hoarding. Can we say that solidarity was being practised at the international level? 

It was this gap, between words and actions, which inspired my Wellcome-funded discovery research project, Moving beyond solidarity in global health rhetoric: Pluriversality and actionable tools.

What do we mean by solidarity? 

This project is not attempting to redefine solidarity. What we're trying to do is understand what solidarity means to different people.  

Take, for example, people in the Global South.  

Communities in Latin America, Africa and Asia have ways of actually living solidarity, as if it's the normal way of life. Yet their voices and experiences are not part of the global discourse.

So, how can we de-silence them and learn from these experiences to enrich our understanding of solidarity?

In this project, we will do this by engaging with the people and the voices across different areas of the Global South, to find out how they conceptualise and live solidarity.

This will be done through a series of workshops, spanning countries and languages across different regions.

Out of this work, we're hoping to tease out a pluriversal, inclusive understanding of solidarity.

Creating actionable tools 

This first phase of the project will take about two years. Once we have arrived at this pluriversal understanding of solidarity, we can start to develop actionable tools. 

The benefits of having these tools are twofold. 

Firstly, it means that when there are appeals to solidarity, we know exactly what people are appealing to be done. 

Secondly, we can measure whether solidarity is being practised and by who.

In the global health space, we often talk about large concepts – equity, diversity, as well as solidarity.

People might think these concepts are too abstract to be measured. But what I would say to them is: think about justice. Justice is an abstract concept, but we’ve created the tool of the justice system to measure it. It’s an imperfect tool, but a tool, nonetheless.

So why can’t we do this for solidarity?

We will not have produced a perfect tool by the end of this project. I'm sure somebody will come along and pick up what we've done and build on it and do something much better.

But we will have triggered the process.

Health and the humanities 

Health is about human beings. Health is not just about combating pathogens.

During the pandemic, medical science made great advances in producing a vaccine in record time.

What was lacking was elements of governance, trust, distribution and allocation of resources. And these are issues that must be tackled from the social sciences, the arts and the humanities.

Because even if we have the best and most scientifically advanced tools, they will be ineffective in combatting disease if people don't want them, they aren't attuned to their needs, or there is no trust.

Building capacity through discovery research 

A lot of research is oriented towards specific results. What is missing is research that is open ended and builds capacities.   

Because when the day comes when you need those capacities, you need to have been cultivating them over a long period of time.

If we keep focusing on specific problems, then we could actually be depriving ourselves of a lot of capacity, which, when it's needed, can’t be generated out of nothing. 

That’s what is part of what is valuable about Wellcome’s Discovery Research programme.

  • Caesar Atuire

    Associate Professor and Ethics Lead

    University of Ghana, University of Oxford

    Dr Caesar Atuire is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Ghana and Ethics Lead at the Masters in International Health and Tropical Medicine at the University of Oxford.

    His academic career started in civil engineering and has moved into philosophy, ethics and bioethics.