The ping pong story: a symbol of global North-South cooperation?

Blogpost for Norwegian Research School of Global Health (NRSGH) written in Amsterdam whilst attending a PhD course funded by NRSGH and Department of Community Medicine & Global Health

The last two and half years and counting, presented monumental challenges to people around the world, that may take decades or more to recover from. Similarly, the past years also taught us novel ways of doing things differently with efficient results. A lot has been written and said about COVID-19 and the impact it had and continue to inflict on lives and livelihoods. For this reason, I will not dwell much on this.

Most if not all PhD students that started their research journeys during this period or thereafter have a story or two to tell about their experiences. Each story is unique and so are mine – one of which I will narrate now. To set the context for this blogpost, I will digress a little in one sentence and return to the theme in a jiffy. Please stay with me 😊

My country – The Gambia is described as ‘The Smiling Coast of Africa’ because most people are warm and sociable. One of the unique attributes that non-Gambians see when they visit Gambia or meet a Gambian, is the smiles. One of my European friends who visited Gambia few years ago was perplexed by this and calls it a paradox. How could people keep smiles on their faces when the socio-economic metrics are heavily stacked against them? Although I am equally fascinated with this uniqueness, I really don’t know the answer. Perhaps the answer lies in our strong social bond which makes us resilient in the face of adversity.

Coming from a society that places high premium on socialisation, it was both refreshing and exciting when the Norwegian government removed COVID-19 restrictions. This means PhD students can now go back to their offices, attend lectures in person, have lunch together with postdocs, professors and department staff and most importantly, meet supervisors to discuss research projects. It was during one of these lunches that Frode Eick – a Norwegian PhD candidate – and I reminisced ‘The Good Old Days’ and discussed how PhD students can leverage reopening of society and spend more time together. Out of the blue, the idea of having a table tennis (ping pong) in our department was conceived. Initially, it was meant to encourage PhD students and postdocs to take time off their busy work temporarily to play with each other as a way of refreshing their memories and getting to know others in the department. But as discussions continue, professors, department staff and master’s students also showed keen interest and thus, a ping pong for the whole department was born.

As trivial as it may sound, the ping pong story symbolises strong partnership and collaboration between two nationals from The Gambia and Norway. Although some people, myself included, do not fully understood the term “Global North-South cooperation” and what it signifies, I will use it for description purpose only. The gist of the matter is a collaboration between Frode and I, which was based on mutual respect, transparency and harnessing each others talents and knowledge. Our collaboration to realised the ping pong dream can be a model for inclusive and participatory global health agenda setting through bilateral or multilatarism. 

In a chronicle for the United Nations, Professor Ilona Kickbusch describe global health agenda setting as managing two complex domains: interdependence and globalization, and also addressing the increasing inequalities within and between nations through shared development strategies. The COVID-19 situation for instance has laid bare the sheer inequalities and inequities in the world. A lot has been said about vaccines inequalities for instance but there are other domains in global health that are often overlooked, which are as critical as vaccine inequities. There are growing calls for waiving of trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights (TRIPs) for critical diagnostics, therapeutics, and other tools to prevent, diagnose and treat COVID-19 as well as make vaccines available for more than 60% of the world’s population. As expected, some high income countries and big pharma companies are strongly resisting these calls despite billions of dollars of profits these companies raked in since the pandemic started. Global health agenda setting must therefore take into considerations these realities and how to mitigate their impact. Of course, we should recognise that these are complex issues to navigate through. Nevertheless, we should direct our resources, advocacies and lobbying to issues that we can influence in a positive way.

Even though I proposed the idea of having a ping pong table, Frode and I jointly discussed the most critical aspects of the ping pong project including resource and logistics implications. Even though we discussed these practicalities in detail, we admitted that two of us alone cannot pull this off. We therefore need to popularise the idea and get as much support as possible. We suggested the idea to PhD candidates and postdocs and received overwhelming support. We proposed the idea to the head of department and faculty staff and to our surprised, I guess, it received strong support. The head of department advised that we discuss with administration whose support is critical to the realisation of the ping pong project. Lesson to learn is global health agenda setting should be inclusive, participatory and transparent and getting the support of key stakeholders is as important as the decision itself.

The ultimate goal of global agenda setting is to get things done and the most important resource beside human resource is financial resource. Our decision to make this project inclusive and participatory based on shared values and mutual respect makes it easier for administration to finance part of the ping pong project. I offered my time and labour, whereas Frode offered not only his time and labour but also his car to transport the ping pong to the department and work tools to reassemble the table with my support. This symbolises counterpart/local funding and this gesture promotes ownership and sustainability of programmes or intervention(s) that are agreed during agenda setting. 

A happy ending – a ping pong project that was discussed over lunch is now realized. This indoor game is being utilised by both PhDs and master’s students, postdocs, faculty and administrative staff. 

In conclusion, global health agenda setting should take an inclusive, participatory and transparent approach utilising knowledge, skills and resources from both Global North/South. The intricacies and complex domains in global health agenda setting should be thoroughly examined and discussed as they are critical to decision-making.