Dr. Kenneth Maes
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For Oregon State University anthropologist Kenneth Maes, the lack of health workers in contexts of poverty point to important links between population health, politics, and society. Maes focuses on lay health workers who engage in basic healthcare and health-promoting outreach activities at the community level, outside of clinics and hospitals. Community Health Workers or “CHWs” are thought to be uniquely capable of averting needless deaths and suffering through their intimate relationships with community members. But around the world, many community health workers live in poverty, are poorly compensated, and lack secure employment. According to the model of “partnership” that guides many of today’s global health initiatives, wealthy institutions provide drugs, medical technologies, and well-paid experts, while poor countries are expected to provide cheap labor. Government and non-governmental health organizations are often unable or unwilling to provide better job conditions for CHWs.
A biocultural medical anthropologist, Maes is particularly interested in how helping community health workers achieve economic security may have positive effects on their own well-being and on their abilities to improve the health of their communities. He also studies how global health institutions and local communities negotiate the quantity and quality of available CHW jobs.
Since 2006, Maes’ research has focused on CHWs in Ethiopia. Using data from surveys, participant observation, and in-depth interviews, he has affirmed that people become CHWs partly because they seek to uphold values of humble service to others in need. But people also hope that becoming a CHW will help them achieve freedom from economic insecurity within their own households. The surveys he conducted during the 2008 global food crisis revealed that many CHWs experience moderate to severe household food insecurity, and that food insecurity is strongly associated with increased levels of psychological distress. Maes finds that apparently devoted and self-sacrificing Ethiopians end up questioning their commitments to the CHW role when they find it does not address their hope of achieving socioeconomic progress. Maes will soon be returning to Ethiopia as Co-Principal Investigator on a research project funded by the National Science Foundation. In collaboration with Ethiopian colleagues in local universities and public health agencies, he will study the well-being of rural health workers and their relationships with the communities their serve and the global institutions that rely on them. He also hopes to begin new projects examining CHWs and the challenges they face here in Oregon.