February 24, 2003

Conflict resolution skills help fight Guinea worm


Allyson Menacker is an intern with the Carter Center's public information office.


"He said, ‘You will stay in my thoughts forever, Jeffrey,’” said Carter Center conflict resolution expert Jeffrey Mapendere, reflecting on his parting words with a Sudanese health care worker.

The farewell was one Mapendere and other center experts shared with 16 health care workers they had trained in conflict-resolution skills. Mapendere said the workers, frustrated by the Sudanese civil war’s destructive impact on their treatment efforts, initially doubted that those skills would help them accomplish their goal of ridding Sudan of Guinea worm disease. But at the conclusion of their weeklong training, the workers’ reactions were a testimony to their renewed hope, Mapendere said.

The Carter Center has been working in Sudan both to resolve the civil war and eradicate Guinea worm disease, a parasitic disease contracted through consumption of contaminated water. While the center has decreased Guinea worm worldwide from 3.5 million cases to just 65,000 in the past decade, Sudan harbors about 80 percent of those remaining, and health care workers often cannot reach Guinea worm-afflicted villages in southern Sudan because of the conflict.

The center, in collaboration with Emory’s Institute for Health and Conflict, held its first workshop in January in Sudan’s capital of Khartoum to teach health care workers conflict-resolution skills. They learned how to negotiate access into villages that have been seized by soldiers and how to settle village disputes, as Guinea worm workers often are seen as respected community leaders.

“Promoting health is a very good way to address politics in a warring environment,” said Matt Hill, a Carter Center conflict resolution intern who traveled to Khartoum for the project. “In Sudan’s civil war, both sides have soldiers with Guinea worm disease, so they are more inclined to comply with our efforts. They put politics aside and began to trust us when they saw we were there to help.”

The Sudanese health workers spoke Arabic, which necessitated the use of translators and required center staff to condense ideas into concise sentences for quick translation.

“The language barrier was challenging, but by the last day of training, you could tell they were excited to use these new skills in practice,” said Alex Little, a Carter Center conflict resolution assistant.

In turn, the trainers heard from the workers their difficulties in treating Guinea worm disease in war-torn areas. One frequent problem is losing contact with patients who have fled their homes due to fighting and not knowing whether the patients had been reinfected.

“Through conversation, we got a much better idea of the problems that Sudanese healthcare workers face, which will help us in future,” said David Davis, professor of political science who also traveled to Sudan. “That was something very useful that came about in this pilot experience.”

The project’s staff plans to evaluate the pilot program’s effectiveness over the next six months through follow-up interviews with the health care workers. Mapendere said the enthusiastic reaction of the workers is testimony already to the project’s success.

“At first, they were reserved and serious—tired of conflict,” Mapendere said. “When we finished the training, they were excited and very confident. All of us left with a sense of achievement.”






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