Professor Colin McInnes

Professor Colin McInnes is based at the Department of International Politics at Aberystwyth University where he is the University’s Professor of Research Excellence and Impact.

He received the UNESCO Chair in HIV AIDS Education and Health Security in Africa, in 2007 to engage with researchers and policy makers in southern Africa to examine the complexities of defining HIV/AIDS as a security issue.

UKNC’s Oska Paul and Tamsin Koumis caught up with Colin to talk about his new research focus on the social concequences of the Ebola crisis and the value of membership to the global UNESCO universities network.


UKNC: Please could you outline the objectives of your UNESCO Chair and the role that it plays within the Department of International Politics at Aberyswyth University. 

CM: My UNESCO Chair is focused on HIV and AIDS research. But while most people working on HIV and AIDS look at the biomedical conditions (so how the disease is transmitted, how it works on the body, and ultimately therefore how you might get a cure for it), I am interested in the social science of HIV – the social factors that lead to its transmission, and the social consequences of high prevalence of HIV.

For example, what happens to a community when you have large numbers of people who are HIV-positive, whether that community is as small as a family, or as large as a state?

For a family, it could be that if the income generator is ill, the rest of the family are needed as long term carers rather becoming alternate income generators themselves.

For a state, HIV is an unusual disease, because while most diseases hit the vulnerable in society hardest – the very young, elderly or infirm – HIV often hits the middle classes and the skilled labour force. When HIV is affecting your teachers, doctors, truck drivers, your policemen, who are all unable to work, it starts to have a major impact on society and the state.

I am interested in the way in which a health issue has an impact on the security of communities, from the family to the state. Colleagues and I have termed ‘global health security’.

I work with colleagues who do research in Africa and produce the raw data that I use for broader questions. So it’s not the micro-narrative, it’s the much bigger macro narrative that I am interested in.

UKNC: What projects are you working on at the moment?

CM: One is a handbook for the Oxford University Press on Global Health Politics. Global Health Politics is a relatively new area in academic research, so we are trying to define the parameters of this field to see what the agenda is. This is in the early stages.

Over the last 12 months, I’ve also been focused on Ebola. I am interested in Ebola as a global health security issue.

The UN Security Council deemed Ebola to be a disease that was a threat to international peace and security. But in what sense was Ebola actually a security issue?

I’m asking why Ebola was a crisis because, aside from one report which estimated a worst case of fatalities to be at 1.4 million people, most estimates of the number of people who died in West Africa are in the region of about 12,000 – plus a handful in North America and Europe. All of these cases are tragic but in the list of global problems and global health problems, where does this actually rank when you compare it to, for example, the annual 750,000 infants who died of diarrhoeal disease?

So what is a crisis? Why is the world so fixated on an outbreak event like Ebola – a really quite nasty disease – but doesn’t get to grips with something like diarrhoeal disease that can be prevented much more easily and kills far more people on an annual basis? And that’s a really interesting social science question.

UKNC: What would you say are some of the social impacts that you’re seeing from the Ebola outbreak?

CM: One of the things which we’ve learnt with HIV, and we’re learning again with Ebola, is that simply saying you’re from a respected international organisation does not mean that you have the trust of the people on the ground. You have to work with local communities and get them on side, so that you are trusted, and that the advice you give can then effect behavioural change.

You see some classic posters form the early days of the Ebola outbreak, one of them said ‘Don’t Eat Bush Meat!’, because one of the fears was that Ebola was transmitted through eating bush meat. The thing is, in many parts of West Africa, bush meat is a staple food so it was indicative of organisations who didn’t understand what was practical on the ground. We learnt quite quickly that it is about building trust on the ground.

What do you do when local practices run up against international norms and standards? Normally you send the epidemiologists – the people who know about disease, how it spreads, that sort of stuff. But the World Health Organisation (WHO) eventually realised that they needed people who also understood how society in West Africa works – they needed social anthropologists.

Social anthropologists look at things like burial customs. When there’s a crisis with Ebola and people bury the dead, and touch the bodies, they risk becoming infected with Ebola. So you need social anthropologists out there who have spotted this in advance, and tell the aid workers in West Africa how to prevent this from happening.

That is one of the big positives to come out of the handling of Ebola – this understanding that these are not simply problems for medical sciences, they are problems for social science as well.

UKNC: As UNESCO isn’t a health organisation, what role does it have to play within all of this?

CM: Firstly, UNESCO is an educational body, and is interested in the problems that educators have. In large parts of Africa, a very significant number of parents became HIV positive, so the children cannot go to school because they are looking after their parents. There are all sorts of educational consequences from a long term health event like HIV and UNESCO has a real interest in that.

Secondly, one of UNESCO’s cross cutting priorities is focused on Africa and the UNESCO Chair’s research agenda fits into UNESCO’s Priority Africa.

UKNC: How does the UNESCO Chair support the work that you do?

CM: The single biggest thing that UNESCO provides is the value of the brand. If I were just an academic researching HIV I would have much less access, much less purchase in the policy world, than having the UNESCO brand to underpin my research.

That’s why the quality control that the UKNC does, the work around which organisations and what work is recommended to join the UNESCO network, is so important. If the UNESCO brand is not associated with quality then the brand runs the risk of becoming diluted.