As a CSIH staff member from 1990-2001, I worked as Project Director for the Trans Caucasus Health Information Project (TCHIP). My goal was to introduce new health information practices to three countries that were part of the Former Soviet Union: Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. Government health information in Soviet times was mandated from above, and was not very reliable nor accessible to the users.
These countries were now newly independent nations struggling to adapt to Western practices while maintaining the positive elements of their culture and history.
CSIH made use of international and Canadian experts such as the University of Victoria School of Health Information Science, to promote the development of integrated, computer-based, national health information systems using case-based health data collected at points of care.
When we started the project, there was very little Canadian experience with the South Caucasus, and we had to start by building relationships. I learned a lot about the world view of the citizens of these countries and their obstacles as they tried to adapt to new realities and methodologies in their health systems.
The staff team -- including Eva Slawecki, now the Executive Director of CSIH -- made frequent trips to the region, and there were several study tours from the South Caucasus to Canada. In addition to technical talk and collaboration, we shared food, stories, and music, and developed friendships with our colleagues. It was fascinating to learn about the culture of these three countries.
At the time, there was very little tourism development, and we often stayed in guest houses rather than hotels. In Georgia, the owner of the guest house made his own wine, which, shall we say, left something to be desired. (The food at the guest house, on the other hand, was fantastic.) As we were leaving, the man would always give us a big bottle of wine as a going away present. We always accepted it to be polite, but at the airport, we would turn to our driver and ask him to keep it. “Of course,” he said, and promptly opened the back of the car, where we could see at least five or six of the same bottles left behind by other travellers!
Wine drinking aside, this experience brought me into global health, from my previous work in international development. Following my experience at CSIH, I worked at the Canadian Public Health Association (CPHA) as a program director for an international program aimed at capacity building of public health associations in developing countries. After that, I worked at the Canadian Red Cross, supervising some major global health initiatives in malaria and Maternal and Child Health.
I have frequently recalled my experiences in CSIH as a reference point for many issues, such as the methodology of capacity building, the role of ministries of health and the World Health Organization, and the role of Canadian technical experts.