The ‘Tribal Medicine Project’ (Part 2)

In this post I would like to draw attention to some correspondence in the Tribal Medicine Project file with Dr. Sue Chowdhury, a Health Adviser in Oxfam’s Health Unit from 1986-1990. There is a memo dated 1st June 1988 from Dr. Chowdhury to David de Pury in which she lists the positives and negatives of the Tribal Medicine Project. One of the most interesting things about the memo is that it shows Oxfam was conscious of developing an approach to traditional medicine. Chowdhury writes: ‘In summary, I think this is an interesting project; […] For my personal interest, I would be grateful if I could see full documentation of the study as I am trying to look into issues of Oxfam support for traditional medicines’.
Indeed, Chowdhury went on to write a ‘Review of Oxfam’s involvement with traditional medicine’ dated February 1989. A summary of this report states:
Oxfam has funded projects involving traditional medicine for many years. There have been attempts in the past to discuss traditional health in relation to Oxfam’s funding criteria. To arrive at a better understanding of the kind of work Oxfam funds in this area, this paper concentrates on a review of existing projects.
In total Dr. Chowdhury’s report reviews 36 projects from Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. The Tribal Medicine Project is mentioned on page 8:
Dr. Sue Chowdhury, 1989, page 8 (Bodleian Libraries, Oxfam Archive)
From the report, and the earlier memo, it is clear that Dr. Chowdhury is in favour of the integration of traditional and allopathic (‘western’) medicine; she cites China as an example of where this has been successful. She also importantly recognises that for some people traditional medicine is the only form of primary health care that they have access to, often because it is cheaper. Therefore, it is vitally important for Oxfam to identify and work with traditional practitioners, for example a ‘Traditional Birth Attendant’ (TBA).
The Field Directors’ Handbook, first published in 1985(Bodleian Libraries, Oxfam Archive)
This point is reiterated in The Field Directors’ Handbook: An Oxfam Manual for Development Workers (4thed., 1990) which has a section relating to ‘Alternative Health systems’. It states that an estimated 70-90% of all ‘self-recognised episodes of ill-health’ are treated either at home or by using ‘traditional/alternative healers’. It advises field staff to ‘find out about these alternatives, and wherever possible to integrate them into primary health care and social development programmes’.
Throughout the short time that I have been working on the archive, the sheer variety and range of projects that Oxfam has funded never ceases to amaze me. I didn’t imagine I would come across anything to do with alternative medicine, but I have been impressed by the thoughtful and sensitive way in which Oxfam has approached this subject.

2 thoughts on “The ‘Tribal Medicine Project’ (Part 2)

  1. Thank you for your comment. It’s great to know that there is an interest in this. The Oxfam archive contains some fascinating material and it’s a privilege to be working on it. The work is being approached in three 18 month phases, with a tranche of the archive becoming available to researchers at the completion of each stage. Our first selection of material will be accessible by June 2014, with the entire historic archive becoming available to researchers in June 2017.

  2. Many thanks to @WelLibOxford for directing me to these posts, which hint tantalisingly at all kinds of interesting material which may be in the Oxfam archives.The references to ‘tribal medicine’ above chimes very much with the emerging interest in ‘indigenous knowledge’ in development circles of the time. This was an interest in the development industry that was keen not to lose ‘alternative knowledges’, but was increasingly aware of the relationships between power, knowledge and institutions in society. It’s interesting though to see the cultivation and collection of medicinal plants described as being like ‘extension work’ of an earlier era – how far do the same projects just get continuously re-framed?! Also interesting that these materials are from India, which has a longer history than most of the institutionalisation of ‘indigenous knowledge’, sometime including a passing whiff of nationalism to them too. Great to see this as an emerging set of resources for histories of development (see also British Library of Development Studies at IDS/Sussex, which has materials going back to the 60s, and no doubt elsewhere too).

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