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The Colonial Politics of Global Health

The Colonial Politics of Global Health

France and the United Nations in Postwar Africa

Jessica Lynne Pearson

ISBN 9780674980488

Publication date: 09/10/2018

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In The Colonial Politics of Global Health, Jessica Lynne Pearson explores the collision between imperial and international visions of health and development in French Africa as decolonization movements gained strength.

After World War II, French officials viewed health improvements as a way to forge a more equitable union between France and its overseas territories. Through new hospitals, better medicines, and improved public health, French subjects could reimagine themselves as French citizens. The politics of health also proved vital to the United Nations, however, and conflicts arose when French officials perceived international development programs sponsored by the UN as a threat to their colonial authority. French diplomats also feared that anticolonial delegations to the United Nations would use shortcomings in health, education, and social development to expose the broader structures of colonial inequality. In the face of mounting criticism, they did what they could to keep UN agencies and international health personnel out of Africa, limiting the access Africans had to global health programs. French personnel marginalized their African colleagues as they mapped out the continent’s sanitary future and negotiated the new rights and responsibilities of French citizenship. The health disparities that resulted offered compelling evidence that the imperial system of governance should come to an end.

Pearson’s work links health and medicine to postwar debates over sovereignty, empire, and human rights in the developing world. The consequences of putting politics above public health continue to play out in constraints placed on international health organizations half a century later.


  • Pearson’s deeply researched and elegantly written book demonstrates that international organizations played a defining role in reshaping empire in the postwar period. Her work compellingly argues that the United Nations and the World Health Organization provided templates for universal rights and health for all, even colonial subjects. The Colonial Politics of Global Health will be an invaluable addition to our understanding of the French Empire, decolonization, and global health initiatives.

    —Jennifer Johnson, Brown University


  • Jessica Lynne Pearson is Assistant Professor of History at Macalester College.

Book Details

  • 272 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press