Interview: Nitsan Chorev on the politics of global health

In this episode of our interview series, our host Luis Aue talks to Prof. Nitsan Chorev, Harmon Family Professor of Sociology and International and Public Affairs at Brown University.

Listen in, as Chorev gives insight into her research on pharmaceutical production in Africa and the politics of trade, development and foreign aid.

Find a short transcription of the interview below or listen to the full one here:

Luis: Hi everyone, today’s podcast is with Nitsan Chorev. She is currently a guest at the Global Governance for Health and the Global Humanitarian Medicine units of the WZB Berlin Social Science Center. A very warm welcome!

Nitsan: Thank you Luis.

Luis: You have been in Berlin for two weeks now. How are you enjoying your stay so far?

Nitsan: It has been very nice. I received a very warm welcome actually.

Luis: Why did you choose the WZB for a guest position?

Nitsan: Well, first of all, I was invited. But more importantly, this institution has groups of scholars working on global governance and global health, which is something I really care about. I wanted to be part of this community for a few weeks – to be able to participate in the conversations and be able to listen to talks and get feedback on my own work. So I feel very privileged to be here.

Luis:  You wrote two well-received books; one on US trade policy and one on the World Health Organization (WHO). Currently you are working on your third book, which is about pharmaceutical production in Africa. How are these projects connected? Is there a thread that binds them together?

Nitsan: That’s a complicated question. Yes and no. It’s true that I have been involved in three different projects that seem not to be entirely connected to each other: trade policy in the US, the politics of the WHO, and local production of drugs in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. The obvious thread is the empirical one, which, in some way, for a sociologist is less interesting. I was interested in trade policy in the US as a way to figure out the political dynamics behind globalization through trade liberalization. My studies on trade policy in the US got me interested in the World Trade Organization, and therefore international organizations more generally, but also in the debate on the intellectual property rights, which led me to get interested in the WHO. Hence, the new project about the WHO, which got me interested in access to medicine, which eventually led me to a project on pharmaceutical production.

So this is the empirical knot in some way. But theoretically, I want to think that they all ask about more-or-less the same issue, which may be the politics of globalization in a broadly defined sense, or perhaps, more importantly, the struggles, debates, and negotiations behind decision making in regard to globalization, as well as in regard to other things. All of them have the common theoretical thread of taking both the institutions that underline decision making and opportunities, and the strategies that allow to push back against these institutions very seriously.

Luis: Okay, let’s speak a bit about your latest project, which is about the production of pharmaceuticals in Africa. What is it about?

Nitsan: The project started as some kind of an empirical puzzle regarding me finding out that there is local and locally-owned pharmaceutical production in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. Briefly over time, for reasons that are neither trivial nor obvious, some local pharmaceutical companies started to develop more complex drugs and started following higher quality standards. And I wanted to figure out why.

Luis: And you found out that development aid plays a very important role, right? Could you elaborate on that?

Nitsan: The book ended up being about foreign aid in the emergence and upgrading of pharmaceutical production in East Africa. What I ended up writing about is a book about the conditions under which foreign aid could be effective for what I refer to as pockets of industrialization, but really it’s my case study that shows that foreign aid was effective with regard to pharmaceutical production, in particular, in the 1980s as well as the 2000s.

Luis: What were the conditions under which foreign aid could have a positive impact?

Nitsan: Three things really made the difference. One is really the creation of a demand so that local producers will start creating certain commodities. Second, in my case, you do not only have to produce commodities, meaning drugs, but you also have to produce commodities of a certain quality – following certain international standards to remain competitive. And third, you need technical support. You can give out market incentives to produce drugs and even good drugs but essentially, without technical equipment, it won’t be very effective. Mentoring through international or bilateral development agencies also proved to be fundamental.

Luis: I always find it very interesting to find out about the books that inspired the researchers. That’s maybe a good final question: What kind of books have really had an impact on your research?

Nitsan: For that, I would have to go back to graduate school. I can think of two books that are very different from each other. One is the work by Pierre Bourdieu, which had actually nothing to do with global governance or global health, but it provides a logic that I find extremely useful in thinking about sociological as well as non-sociological issues. When I talk about institutions, struggles, even strategies, somehow Bourdieu is always in the back of my mind. The other one, I have to say, is the work by Theda Skocpol, partly because she works on states but also partly because there is something both empirically and analytically beautiful, clean, and almost pure about her work.

Luis: Thanks a lot for a lovely interview!

Nitsan: Well, thank you.

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