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“We are healthy or ill because of our own lifestyles but, more importantly, because of where we are born and what social class we are born into.”

Marianna Fotaki (MSc Health Planning and Financing 1993, PhD Social Policy and Administration 2001) is Professor of Business Ethics at Warwick Business School. Before joining academia in 2003 she worked as a medical doctor in Greece, China, and the UK; as a volunteer and manager for humanitarian organisations Médecins du Monde and Médecins sans Frontiers in Iraq and Albania; and as the EU senior resident adviser to governments in transition in Russia, Georgia and Armenia. Marianna also co-directs pro bono online think tank the Centre for Health and the Public Interest, a charity that disseminates research informing the public and policy makers.

You volunteered for Médecins du Monde and Médecins sans Frontiers, helping refugees fleeing Iraq after the Gulf war. Are there any similarities between today’s refugee crisis and the situation you experienced back then? 

The situations all refugees find themselves in share certain characteristics: they don’t choose to be in those circumstances – they are just normal people leading normal lives who become under threat and are forced to flee at very short notice, leaving everything behind They don’t know what the future holds for them, and they harbour the hope of returning to their home country one day. 

After the Gulf war broke out in 1991, I worked on the Turkish-Iraqi border where hundreds of thousands of Kurdish refugees lived in the mountains in very harsh conditions. More recently, my son – who is graduating from LSE this week – volunteered to help Syrian refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos. The situations he described were painfully similar to those I witnessed 25 years earlier.

Refugees have to rely on the kindness of strangers, but aid isn’t always well coordinated – different organisations have different agendas, goals and conceptions. Nonetheless, there is something genuinely admirable in how volunteers from across the world come to help their fellow human beings. And in doing so, they are addressing the inefficiency, inability or unwillingness of states that fail to give an appropriate response. I explore this issue further in my recent TEDx talk Turning Fear to Purpose

Before joining academia, you worked as a medical doctor for many years. What led you to this career change? 

I started to study medicine in Poland, continued my studies in Greece, and went to China on a scholarship to learn about Chinese medicine. I then worked as a doctor for five years and became intrigued as to why people repeat behaviours that make them ill. I believe we are healthy or ill because of our own lifestyles but, more importantly, because of where we are born and what social class we are born into. I quickly realised that the causes of disease can be social and wanted to understand them better.

I am a firm supporter of universal access to health care, and one of the biggest issues is how to finance public health systems, so I decided to enroll on the MSc Health Planning and Financing at LSE. I truly enjoyed the experience, fell in love with academia and felt I could have more of an impact with regards to health and social justice by becoming an academic.

In your opinion, how can academics contribute to the betterment of society and bring about change?

Academics intervene in the public discourse, providing independent evidence-based thinking, and we can use our social capital and credibility to speak truth to governments using facts and results of our research. For example, there are tons of evidence on how markets don’t work in health care, but these arguments are not frequently heard. We have the responsibility of repeating those arguments clearly and loudly in as many forums as we can, drawing on our expertise.

As teachers, we have the opportunity to consciously and systematically raise social issues to avoid the perpetuity of inequality. We can also be role models to junior scholars, and demonstrate it is possible to do meaningful work ethically. I believe in the power of education and I believe people can change through education. I am also very much in favour of academic activism and lending my voice to important causes.

Your research interests include the gender and ethics of diversity in business organisations. How can we counteract exclusion and promote diversity?

Gender is a fantastic case study. Women had historically been the “excluded other” and when the doors opened for them, it provided perspective to look at which other social groups had been excluded. We should all have an equal chance to succeed in the job market regardless of our gender, ethnicity, social background or sexual orientation but, unfortunately, this is not a reality yet. I don’t like the term positive discrimination, but I do support proactive measures at policy level and changes in the organisational culture to speed up the inclusion of underrepresented groups. 

What advice would you give to people starting out in their careers?

Understand what you are good at – build on your strengths, acknowledge your weaknesses and don’t try to become something you are not. Act in accordance with your own values and choose a path that is meaningful to you. 

Build alliances with people who are in a position of power so you know first hand what it takes to get to that position, even if they are not like you. 

I would implore young women to never take women’s rights for granted, as society can regress and rights can be reversed – and we do need to be prepared to defend them.

Is there anything you learned at LSE that stands out? 

LSE transformed me as a person, it encouraged me to question assumptions and think critically. It taught me to challenge things, but also to ask the right questions – which was incredibly helpful during the ten years I worked as an EU consultant advising governments in transition in Eastern European countries after the Berlin Wall came down.  

I loved the School’s culture of openness and tolerance – teachers and fellow students took a genuine interest in what other people had to say, regardless of who they were or where they came from. My supervisor, Sir Julian Le Grand, became a mentor and a dear friend: I learned a lot from him and try to put that into practice with my own students. My LSE experience is probably the reason I am now an academic in this country.