Tropical Medicine Expert, Humanitarian Kevin Cahill Speaks at University of Montana
Posted: Thursday, November 17, 2011 5:45 am
For more than 45 years and in 65 countries, Dr. Kevin Cahill has been helping to heal the world.
A leading expert in tropical medicine and a driving force in humanitarian aid, Cahill earned his chops as a young physician tending to the poor in Calcutta, where he worked alongside Mother Teresa while studying epidemic diseases. Today he has written and edited more than 30 books on subjects ranging from tropical disease to the coordination of humanitarian emergencies, and is a celebrated advocate of providing medical services internationally.
A sought-after speaker on the academic circuit, Cahill receives numerous invitations to visit universities and medical symposiums but politely rejects them, choosing instead to focus on his work as director of the Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs at Fordham University in New York, and as president of the Center for International Humanitarian Cooperation.
Recently, however, an envelope bearing a Montana address grabbed Cahill's attention.
"I have worked in 65 countries, mostly in refugee camps and war zones, but I don't really know my own country very well," Cahill said in a telephone interview. "When I saw the envelope from Montana, I said, ‘I have never been to Montana. I want to go to Montana.' "
And so he will come to Montana, with two lectures scheduled at the University of Montana on Friday as part of the President's Lecture Series.
He will provide insights on issues ranging from the provision of medical services internationally, the health care crisis, the United States' role in fostering peace around the globe, and the role of cultural awareness in crisis relief.
Although medicine has been a major component of Cahill's lifelong career, he is a veteran of untold humanitarian aid crises and launched his career at a time when the field was largely uncharted.
"It is not a field for amateurism," he said. "It is a place for coordinated efforts."
His humanitarian efforts have taken him to Africa, Latin America and the Far East and Middle East, including lengthy stints in Somalia, Sudan, Nicaragua and Haiti.
A large part of Cahill's work at Fordham is training students in "disaster risk reduction." He said 1,600 graduates are now working in 133 nations as humanitarian workers, responding to disasters, earthquakes, floods and conflict zones.
The training is critical in the effort to advance humanitarian relief beyond its disjointed roots, Cahill said, as the movement had little organization or professional standards when he became involved.
"When I started there wasn't even a common vocabulary. There was no agreement about how to manage or control responses," he said.
In the decades since, Cahill said there has been "a movement toward gradually making humanitarian work more professionalized." Still, nongovernment organizations have multiplied and led to confusion in the field, and controlled responses have collapsed in the face of emergency disasters.
"We have moved from a sectoral approach to a cluster approach and now we are trying to find a uniform world vision. Haiti is an example of uncoordinated work," he said, referring to the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti.
The progress of relief work is the basis for Cahill's first lecture, an afternoon seminar called "The Professionalization of Humanitarianism." It runs from 3:10 to 4:30 p.m. Friday in Gallagher Business Building Room 123.
In his evening lecture, "Romance and Reality in Humanitarian Action," which begins at 8 p.m. in the University Center Ballroom, he will speak about his experiences on the front lines of the world's crisis areas and describe how the beauty of humanity prevails even in despair.
"It is always with amazement and admiration when you watch people come back from the brinks of disaster. The human spirit is evident even among these terribly crushed societies and clans who are trying to put their lives back together again," Cahill said.
He will draw on his personal experiences tending to refugee camps in war-ravaged countries, as well as his 35-year commitment to drought relief in Somalia, where the multicentury Sahel drought has had devastating environmental and social effects on the region.
Cahill has camped in Somalia every year for 35 years, traveling with Nomads and trying to teach them other means of sustenance, like fishing. Instead, he found they survived hardship because they could find beauty and solace even in desperation.
"These are rough places. There is nothing romantic about seeing a sex slave, or being unable to prevent a kidnapping. People can quite legitimately look at these places and situations and decide they are disaster areas. But others can look at them and still find beauty."