Growing up, Seye Abimbola would watch his mother perform free midwife services in their living room for those who needed it. In Nigeria, where roughly 793 women die per 100,000 live births and 14 women die each day from unsafe abortions, it was life-saving work.
“This made me understand early on how health is made and unmade, what we now call the social and political determinants of health,” Abimbola, who is now the editor-in-chief of the British Medical Journal (BMJ) Global Health, told Public Health Post last year.
The experience also helped set Abimbola on his career path: As a professor of public health and at BMJ Global Health, Abimbola aims to amplify marginalized voices and push global health research to be more equitable.
Founded in 2016 as an offshoot of the BMJ — one of the world’s oldest medical journals — BMJ Global Health is an online journal that publishes content related to, you guessed it, global health. The journal features papers and analyses on the Covid-19 pandemic response, HIV testing, AI and health, and much more.
In 2015, when BMJ Global Health launched under Abimbola’s leadership, he told the George Institute for Global Health that the journal wanted a dedicated space for research that evaluates how factors such as income, education, and public policy can play a role in communities’ health. These social determinants — non-medical conditions in someone’s environment — play a significant role in people’s ability to survive and thrive.
Throughout his career, first at the Ministry of Health in Nigeria and now as an associate professor at the University of Sydney School of Public Health in Australia, Abimbola has emphasized the need for “divestment and decentralization” in global health research.
In practice, this means that, for example, a study in Nigeria should not be targeted to an audience in London, he told Public Health Post. If targeted to people living in Nigeria, the research could have a tangible influence on health outcomes for those living in the country.
For example, research on how to prevent Covid cases in Nigerian communities should be published on a platform accessible to those communities. That way, the practices that research identifies could actually be adopted. If the research is published with an organization based half a world away, the work will do little to actually address the health crisis.
“I can’t think of any scenario where I should do a study in Nigeria with the primary purpose of impressing someone in London,” Abimbola continued. “If we define that as a big chunk of the problem, then we have to find a way to refocus our attention to the right audiences, which would be the local ones in this instance. I should be trying to impress the local people.”
He believes the same mentality needs to be applied to the language used in the research. Terms such as “low- and middle-income countries” divide the world into “unnatural categories,” he argues. This, in turn, shapes the questions scientists and researchers ask and therefore what gets studied.
“The academic global health literature marginalizes a lot of conversations that should be primary — for example, on the role that social learning plays in how knowledge is used to achieve equity,” he wrote in an editorial for BMJ in 2021. “The academic global health literature needs to develop just and inclusive ways of reckoning with knowledge, of all kinds.”