As is typical, our Hart Fellows' research projects and lives abroad have shifted from their initial expectations. Here are some updates from their lives and work.
Developing inclusive economic policies
Matt Hamilton, originally from Fairfield, Connecticut, graduated with a Program II degree—an option offered to Duke undergraduates who wish to design their own courses of study—in May 2016. Matt's degree, entitled "Ideological Frameworks and Economic Institutions," allowed him to study both the theoretical frameworks and the political and economic institutions that structure societies. While at Duke, Matt served on the Duke Chronicle's Independent Editorial Board, wrote on issues of political economy for an English-daily newspaper in Istanbul, Turkey, and worked on developmental finance at OPIC, the US government's developmental finance institution.
Matt Hamilton is partnering with the Renaissance Institute in Yangon, Myanmar, a new policy institute that is working to support economic reform in the country. For more than half a century, Myanmar was ruled by a repressive military dictatorship—but, after a landmark election in November of 2015, the country transitioned to a civilian administration, headed by Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy. However, Myanmar now faces the daunting task of figuring out how to spur economic revival—a key element of sustaining the difficult transition to democracy—despite continued challenges such as ethnic violence and deeply entrenched military influence.
Matt’s fellowship has been a unique experience thus far. He is in Myanmar at a momentous occasion in the nation’s history – amidst its transition into the world’s youngest democracy. Such circumstances, he says, “create the ingredients for a strange type of alchemy: opportunity and frustration. There is so much I have to learn, and so much that has to be done. I am not sure how to balance it all. My expertise is limited (non-existent, really – I am just a recent undergraduate) and I do not want to try and work on something that I am not capable of helping with. After all, my actions here carry consequences – the work is being done on a scale where policy reforms will impact lots of people. But, if I weren’t available to do it, these issues might be passed over. I hope I will be sufficiently aware to know how to balance being useful with vigilantly avoiding being counterproductive. Yet having so much to do and not being sure of where I can be helpful yields an immense amount of knowledge: learning how to situate what I can do, and can do well, amidst many limitations. The frustration has become a way to learn about maximizing opportunity.”
Community-based HIV/AIDS services
Rifat Rahman, originally from Fayetteville, North Carolina, was a Benjamin N. Duke Scholar and graduated with a degree in Biology and minors in Global Health and Chemistry in May 2016. While at Duke, Rifat worked extensively on global health issues, conducting research with the Duke Global Health Institute, the UNC School of Public Health, and the Armed Forces Research Institute of Medical Sciences in Bangkok to explore innovative approaches to reduce the global burden of malaria. He also volunteered with the Community Empowerment Fund in Durham, a nonprofit working with residents of local recovery shelters to sustain transitions out of homelessness.
Rifat Rahman is partnering with the Raks Thai Foundation, a non-profit organization in Bangkok, Thailand, that works on health, education, the environment, economic development, and human rights issues. However, Rifat is working specifically on the Raks Thai Local Capacity Initiative (LCI), a project funded by USAID that aims to build advocacy capacity in communities regarding HIV/AIDS. Thailand has had significant success in the past with HIV/AIDS interventions—the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) estimated that nearly 10 million people have avoided HIV transmission due to early intervention programs implemented in Thailand between 1990 and 2010. However, recently, there has been a new rise in HIV infections, especially among young people and at-risk populations, such as sex workers, men who have sex with men, and transgender people. Thailand is currently considering adopting nationwide community-led services for HIV/AIDS, which would allow community members from at-risk populations to be trained to offer HIV services at a local level.
However, this may not be as easy as it seems. As Rifat writes in his September research update, “Preliminary research by the Thai Red Cross suggests that community drop-in clinics [for HIV testing] are able to reach members of key populations earlier in the course of infection and achieve successful linkages to care. However, outside of this research context, lay providers are not legally allowed to perform HIV testing. This, in conjunction with the planned withdrawal of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Malaria, and Tuberculosis support for civil society HIV programming by the end of 2017, foreshadows a limited role for civil society in the national HIV and AIDS response in the near future. Domestic financing for civil society engagement in the national AIDS program will be necessary to sustain and expand efforts to engage key populations in the HIV continuum of prevention, care, and treatment. But legalization of lay provider testing may serve as a necessary first step towards the eventual goal of domestic independence in sustaining civil society HIV programming.”