Alexander van Tulleken, M.D., has joined the Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs (IIHA) as its new Helen Hamlyn Senior Fellow.
Van Tulleken has conducted aid work in Darfur, Russia, Peru and the Congo, and comes to Fordham from the University of Toronto, where he was a senior resident at Massey College.
He earned his medical degree in 2002 at Oxford, and completed a master’s degree in public health in 2009 at Harvard, where he was a Fulbright Scholar.
It was while he was a medical student that van Tulleken met Kevin M. Cahill, M.D., director of the IIHA. Van Tulleken said he was so impressed with Cahill that he attended the IIHA and earned an International Diploma in Humanitarian Assistance in 2005.
“I wanted some advice about where to travel, and he said, ‘Just go anywhere, it doesn’t matter.’ He didn’t tell me what I wanted to hear, but he said, ‘When you’re older, come and take our course,’” van Tulleken said.
“I finished medical school; I worked overseas; and then I did my first mission in Darfur in 2005. By the time I returned, I realized that even as a qualified doctor, I needed more training in the business of delivering aid in camps in war zones.”
In his new role, van Tulleken will focus on four areas:
• teaching undergraduates and mentoring pre-med students;
• teaching graduates in the IIHA’s master of arts in International Humanitarian Action;
• reaching out to the University community for research possibilities in fields such as economics, anthropology, sociology and history; and
• researching the continuing changes in humanitarian aid, particularly the drive toward professionalizing aid and improving health care in war zones and after natural disasters.
The third area presents an especially vexing challenge, he said. In fact, reconciling political and apolitical action is one of the biggest challenge facing aid workers today.
“In Darfur, there has been no political solution, but along the way there has been an endeavor to feed, clothe and house people in a very temporary, rudimentary way. I’m trying to figure out if those two things can coexist, and how they do,” he said.
“The solution is essentially political, but along the way, you have this very apolitical engagement, where you say, ‘OK, rather than negotiating or taking a side, we’re just going to provide basic health care, shelter and food.’ You don’t ever solve the problem doing that, and yet there’s a great need for it.”
Further complicating matters, the professionalization of aid delivery—while nominally positive—comes with its own complications.
“The age of the amateur, which was really great for a long time, becomes problematic when you have an NGO worth half a billion dollars, when you have private security firms doing humanitarian aid work, or when you have an occupying power delivering aid,” he said.
Van Tulleken is well-versed in raising public awareness about global health, having made two documentaries with the BBC on the subject, as well as a series for the Discovery Channel called Medicine Men Go Wild.
The show, which he made with his twin brother, Chris, sent him from the swamp forests of the Republic of Congo to the Arctic Circle in Russia. He’s well-acquainted with tuberculosis, malaria and HIV, as well as more exotic ailments such as “loa loa filariasis,” also known as the “African eye worm.”
“What really motivates me are people who are so marginalized that they have no access to health care; they have no access to basic services. Within that, I’m very fortunate that there’s a crazy kind of medicine that’s exciting enough for you to watch on network television.”
Kevin Cahill, M.D., director of the IIHA, said van Tulleken possesses a unique combination of practical knowledge from having worked abroad and an academic understanding of theory that the classroom demands.
“Not everybody who does relief work can put their thoughts into a 45-minute lecture, or come out with a lesson, but that’s what Alex brings to the table,” Cahill said. “He has a very clear mind and is a good teacher for that reason.”
Cahill also noted that van Tulleken’s background as a physician likewise gives him a privileged perspective.
“You can go into the field and be very depressed by the field. Or you can go into the field and say, ‘These are really terrible problems that need solutions, and I’m going to struggle toward solutions,’” he said.