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Noelle Sullivan

Associate Professor of Instruction, Global Health Studies

PhD University of Florida 2011

Research and Teaching Interests

Global health, health sector reform, development, transnational governance and policy, international volunteerism, institutional culture and bureaucracy, gender and sexuality, medical waste, eastern Africa and United States


Noelle Sullivan is a medical and sociocultural anthropologist who has conducted ethnographic research on Tanzania’s health sector since 2005. Sullivan has served as core faculty for Northwestern’s Program of Global Health Studies since 2012.

In 2018, Sullivan was named Charles Deering McCormick Distinguished Lecturer, Northwestern University’s highest honor for teaching stream faculty. She has also been selected as a Faculty Fellow at the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities (2019-2020), the Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching (2018-2019), and for Northwestern’s Public Voices Fellowship with the Op-Ed Project (2016-2017). Currently, she participates as a Faculty Fellow in the Curricular Fellowship Program of the Sexualities Project at Northwestern (2018-2021).

Sullivan’s book in preparation, The Business of Good Intentions: Reframing the Global Health Volunteering Debate, examines the real-world effects and implications of international voluntourism in under-resourced health sectors. The book is based on empirical research in Tanzania since 2008, including over 1600 hours of observations of international volunteer-Tanzanian interactions in health facilities. The project examines how the for-profit voluntourism industry maps onto the under-resourced health system in Tanzania and elsewhere, and to what effect for international volunteers and hosting health professionals, patients, and institutions. The Business of Good Intentions puts aside polarizing debates about voluntourism in health care settings and instead focuses on systematic drives and wider implications of global health volunteering. In doing so, the book considers how history and economics collude in the for-profit voluntourism industry to seemingly render moral a variety of unmarked and problematic tropes that inform popular ideas about doing good elsewhere. 

Sullivan’s previous research was a longitudinal ethnographic investigation of Tanzanian health institutions in transition in the wake of health sector reform and externally-funded global health interventions, primarily for HIV/AIDS, malaria, and reproductive health. It traces the ways that public health facilities in Tanzania adopted, absorbed, and creatively engaged with the constraints and opportunities presented by donor-funded and government-prioritized initiatives from 2005-2017. With the Tanzanian government encouraging local institutions to establish public private partnerships, or PPPs, this research extends Sullivan’s 2008 original dissertation research to determine how institutions attempt to create PPPs and their own, institutionally-owned private businesses, in order to tackle pressing infrastructural and capacity shortages in the absence of government and donor support. This study of remaking of public health sectors through market logics and global health intervention provides important insights about the broader impacts of scarcity, narrow health targets, and even narrower budgets on opportunities and constraints that health sectors face in Tanzania, and beyond.

Her next planned project will examine the U.S. health sector, and in particular the economic, environmental, microbial, administrative, and institutional effects of the turn towards disposable and limited-use medical implements. It investigates how notions of sterility and efficiency inform the logics by which health practitioners and administrators do their daily work, and implications of these practices for patients and microbes alike.

In addition, Sullivan is currently working on a popular press book entitled Stretch: A Sister’s Memoir in the Aftermath of Murder.

Global Health Courses Taught

  • Introduction to International Public Health
  • Volunteerism and the Ethics of Help
  • Global Health from Policy to Practice
  • Biomedicine and Culture
  • Qualitative Research Methods in Global Health
  • Global Health and Indigenous Medicine
  • HIV/AIDS in Africa
  • Gender and Sexuality in Global Perspective (forthcoming Spring 2021)
  • Medical Heroes and Demons (forthcoming Winter 2021)

Refereed Journal Articles

  • 2020: “Like a Real Hospital”: Imagining Hospital Futures through Homegrown Public Private Partnerships in Tanzania. For special issue “Beyond Realism: Anthropology of Africa’s Medical Dreams.” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 90(1): 209-228. Noémi Tousignant & P. Wenzel Geissler, guest editors. doi: 10.1017/S0001972019001013
  • 2020: (with Meredith Marten) Hospital Side Hustles: Funding Conundrums and Perverse Incentives in Tanzania’s Publicly-funded Health Sector. Social Science and Medicine 244, 112662. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2019.112662
  • 2018: International Clinical Volunteering in Tanzania: A Postcolonial Analysis of a Global Health Business. For special issue, “Mobility and (Dis)connectivity in the Global Health Enterprise,” Dominik Mattes and Hansjörg Dilger, guest editors, Global Public Health 33(3): 310-324. doi: 10.1080/17441692.2017.1346695
  • 2017: Multiple Accountabilities: Development Co-operation, Transparency, and the Politics of Unknowing in Tanzania’s Health Sector. In special section “In Search of Results: Anthropological Interrogations of Evidence-Based Global Health.” Elanah Uretsky and Elsa Fan, special editors, Critical Public Health 17(2): 193-204. doi: 10.1080/09581596.2016.1264572
  • 2012: Enacting Spaces of Inequality: Placing Global/State Governance within a Tanzanian Hospital. In special issue, Hospital Heterotopias: Comparative Ethnographies of Biomedical Places. Alice Street and Simon Coleman, eds. Space and Culture 15(1):57-67. doi: 10.1177/1206331211426057
  • 2011: Mediating Abundance and Scarcity: Implementing an HIV/AIDS-Targeted Project within a Government Hospital in Tanzania. In special issue, Global AIDS Medicine in East African Health Institutions. Anita Hardon and Hansjörg Dilger, eds. Medical Anthropology 30(2):202-221. doi:10.1080/01459740.2011.552453
  • 2010: (with Hansjörg Dilger, and David Garcia) Negotiating Professionalism, Economics, and Altruism: An Appeal for Ethnographic Approaches to African Medical Migration. African Diaspora 3(2):237-254. doi:10.1163/187254610X526931

Peer-Reviewed Book Chapters

  • 2016: Hosting Gazes: Clinical Volunteer Tourism and Hospital Hospitality in Tanzania. In Volunteer Economies: The Politics and Ethics of Voluntary Labour in Africa. Ruth Prince and Hannah Brown, eds. Pp. 140-163. Rochester, NY: James Currey.
  • 2016: (with Claire Wendland and Susan Erikson) Beneath the Spin: Moral Complexity and Rhetorical Simplicity in ‘Global Health.’ In Volunteer Economies: The Politics and Ethics of Voluntary Labour in Africa. Ruth Prince and Hannah Brown, eds. Pp. 164-182. Rochester, NY: James Currey.

Recent Op-Eds

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