Skip to main content

Noelle Sullivan

Assistant Professor of Instruction

PhD University of Florida 2011

Research and teaching interests

Medical anthropology; global health; hospital ethnography; development; transnational governance and policy; institutional cultures and bureaucracy; infrastructure; materiality and representation; science and technology studies; voluntarism; Africa (especially eastern Africa), United States


Noelle Sullivan is a cultural and medical anthropologist focusing on the politics of global health in practice. Sullivan is concerned about what becomes ‘in vogue’ in global health.  Which issues or needs tend to be included/excluded or celebrated/marginalized? How global health concerns are taken up, and by whom? She conducts ethnographic fieldwork in northern Tanzania.

Sullivan’s current research expands across two projects.

Her current research explores international clinical volunteerism in the global South. Investigating Tanzania as a case study, she examines how hosting health professionals and foreign volunteers think about and engage with one another. She is interested in how hospitals and clinics market themselves as sites for ‘global health experiences’; and how volunteers, healthcare workers, and patients interact in order to achieve their desires or goals within these spaces of encounter. This research interrogates the spaces between good intentions, good business, and good works, since volunteers and Tanzanian health professionals have tremendously divergent ideas about what it means to ‘help’ or to ‘be helped.’ Aimed at addressing the rhetorics and omissions that attend international clinical volunteering, she focuses on how hopes and motivations of both Tanzanians and foreigners impact what clinical volunteering is, in practice. At present, the ethnographic research on this project is complete, and online research on volunteer marketing and experience-sharing is wrapping up. The results of this data are being developed into a book manuscript tentatively entitled Within the Gaps of Global Health: International Clinical Volunteering in Tanzania.

Her second project is a longitudinal ethnographic investigation of 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 have adopted, absorbed, and creatively engaged with the constraints and opportunities presented by donor-funded and government-prioritized initiatives over the past twenty years. With the Tanzanian government encouraging local institutions to establish public private partnerships, or PPPs, this research extends her original 11 month 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.

During 2016-2017, Sullivan was also a Public Voices Fellow of The Op-Ed Project. Her op-eds can be found below, or a comprehensive list of media publications and appearances can be found on her website:

Recent peer-reviewed publications

Forthcoming (Preview available online) Sullivan, Noelle. 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 editoris, Global Public Health. DOI: 10.1080/17441692.2017.1346695

2017 Sullivan, Noelle. Multiple Accountabilities: Development Cooperation, Transparency, and the Politics of Unknowing in Tanzania’s Health Sector. Critical Public Health special section entitled “In Search of Results: Anthropological Interrogations of Evidence-Based Global Health.” Elanah Uretsky and Elsa Fan, special editors. DOI: 10.1080/09521596.2016.1264572.

2016. Sullivan, Noelle. “Hosting Gazes: Clinical Volunteer Tourism and Hospital Hospitality in Tanzania.” In Ruth Prince and Hannah Brown (eds). Volunteer Economies: The Politics and Ethics of Voluntary Labour in Africa. James Currey.

2016. Wendland, Claire, Susan Erikson and Noelle Sullivan. “Beneath the Spin: Moral Complexity and Rhetorical Simplicity in ‘Global Health.'” In Ruth Prince and Hannah Brown (eds). Volunteer Economies: The Politics and Ethics of Voluntary Labour in Africa. James Currey.

2012 Sullivan, Noelle. “Enacting Spaces of Inequality: Placing global/state governance within a Tanzanian Hospital.” For special issue, “Hospital Heterotopias: Comparative Ethnographies of Biomedical Places,” Alice Street and Simon Coleman, eds. Space and Culture. Vol. 15(1).

2011 Sullivan, Noelle. “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.

2010 Sullivan, Noelle, 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. 

Op-Eds & Media Appearances

Forthcoming “Good Intentions and Murky Ethics: How Anthropology Matters in Short-Term Global Health Travel,” with Nicole Berry. Anthropology News November/December issue.

2017 “Who Leads WHO Matters: Why Misconceptions about Africa Persist.” Medium, June 23.

2017 “The AHCA Debate is Missing Crucial Healthcare CostsThe Hill, June 1.

2017 “The Trouble with Medical ‘Voluntourism‘” Scientific American, May 16.

2017 “Why Market Logic Can’t Solve the US Health Care Crisis.” Truthout. May 15.

2017 “The Right Way to Give.” US News & World Report, April 19th.

2017 “Why International Medical Volunteering Does More Harm Than Good.” Role Reboot. April 14th.

2017 “Neoliberalism is Killing Us: Economic Stress as a Driver of Global Depression and Suicide.Truthout. April 2nd.

2017 “Telling the Anti-Vaccine Community They’re Wrong has been Tried for Years Now, and it Doesn’t Work–Here’s Another Approach.” Alternet. March 14th.

2017 “Global Gag Rule’s Impact Goes Far Beyond Abortion.Footnote. Feb. 10th.

2017 “New Administration must Look to Recent Past for Global Health Lessons.” The Hill. Jan. 18th.

2016 “Why is Healthcare so Expensive in the United States?” Op-Ed, The Hill. Dec. 6th.

2016  “We Need to Stop Sending Unskilled Volunteers to Countries that Need Care.” Op-Ed,  VICE Motherboard. Nov. 15th.

2016     The Stream (Al Jazeera English), “Medical Volunteerism”, Interviewee. Aired August 1st.

2016     Fu, Megan. Amateurs play doctor for world’s poor. The Daily Beast. Interviewee. June 1st.

2016    Global poor’s medical care would be unethical in U.S. Op-Ed. Orlando Sentinel, Fe. 25th.

Courses taught at Northwestern

  • Introduction to International Public Health
  • Volunteerism and the Need to Help
  • HIV/AIDS in Africa
  • Qualitative Research Methods in Global Health
  • Biomedicine and Culture
  • Global Health and Indigenous Medicine
  • Hospital Cultures
  • Global Health from Policy to Practice

Other courses taught

  • Human Sexuality and Culture
  • Introduction to Cultural Anthropology
Back to top