HEAL Spotlight: Lyla Latif

  • Name: Lyla Latif
  • Nickname: Lydeen
  • Originated from: East Africa
  • Global public health areas of expertise: Health finance, health law and policy
  • Educational background: LLB, University of Nairobi (2005-2009); LLM, University of Nairobi (2011-2012); MA, University of Duisburg Essen (2014-2015); PhD, Cardiff University (2018-2021)
  • Jobs before your current position (selected): Senior Associate, Rachier & Amollo Advocates, LLP; Lecturer, University of Nairobi
  • Best advice you’ve ever received: Only look back to see how far you have come.
  • Recent webinars/publications you’re proud to be featured on: Cambridge IFA WOMANi 2020 report showcasing the 300 Most Influential Women in Islamic Banking and Finance Globally.
  • Advice you’d give to emerging global public health professionals: If African governments are to take their fiscal responsibility towards health seriously, the right to health must be seen and conceptualized as a constitutional right. Advocate and promote this.
  • Personal website: https://lai-latif.com/   
  • Twitter handle: @LylaALatif
  • Other social media handles: TikTok, LinkedIn

Your story (continued)

After my undergraduate degree, I wasn’t sure what path my career would take. Unlike a river, I was not going to flow in one direction. I wanted to be open to learning, exploring, and being part of whatever exciting opportunities came my way. I started practicing law in 2011 and simultaneously accepted a position to become a researcher under a professor’s mentorship at the University of Nairobi. At the law firm, I started litigating and focusing on diverse forms of law: corporate, administrative, constitutional, criminal, land, contract, medical negligence, intellectual property, tax, and labor. I also advised corporates and government. In my first year of practice, I was asked to draft the first set of new land laws to replace the splintered set of old multiple land legislation that had been enacted after Independence in 1963. My part-time research focused on fiscal law and policy, redistributive justice, and preventing the erosion of a country’s tax base. The founding partners of the law firm that I worked for had set up KELIN, an NGO primarily focused on advocating for health rights and fighting against discrimination based on a person’s health status as well as their sexuality. I was absorbed in providing pro-bono legal advice to KELIN and its clients. That was how I stepped into the practice of health law, policy, and advocacy.

With KELIN, I provided legal advice and training on what the right to health means, how it can be enforced, implemented, and what needs to be done to get the state to be more responsible for health. I worked with the judiciary, healthcare workers, people living with HIV, and people who identified as LGBTI to build their knowledge capacity on the constitutional right to health. As a lawyer, we’ve been fighting to say that sexual orientation shouldn’t relate to health status—they are two different entities…healthcare workers should treat people out of humanity and not cloud their thinking about patients’ private lives. When I stepped back and really look at life and the social reality of things, I said to myself, “You want to do certain things in the private sector, but you also want to transform thinking and change lives.” That’s how I started bringing the idea of redistributive justice into my work. I’m a corporate lawyer, so I started telling my clients, “You’ve got all this money and maybe you’ll operate this company of yours in a rural area in Kenya. Why don’t you think about setting up a school football ground and sponsor young children to play football?” Most families in Kenya live in huts and don’t have space to play, as land ownership in Kenya is an emotive issue. I increasingly centered redistributive justice through work and became happier, especially because I was able to give back to the community.

The University of Nairobi professor for whom I was conducting research with received an opportunity to be a work package coordinator of a project on financing health, Go4Health. Go4Health was a three-year grant and most of the work focused on health finance. These three years were fundamental in shaping my career. Through this project, I was able to see a different side to legal practice–academia—and this experience slowly pushed me towards academic engagement and focused research. I published during the grant period and collaborated with international scholars of human rights, executive directors of NGOs, and healthcare workers. During Go4Health, I started to develop a doctoral project that would focus on financing health. After the project ended, I left for Germany to pursue a master’s in development and governance. Afterwards, I returned to legal practice and applied to be a lecturer at the University of Nairobi, continuing to practice and teach. I began working on consultancies and started gaining prominence as an expert in fiscal law and policy (illicit financial flows and digital taxation). In 2018, after securing a PhD scholarship from Cardiff University, I started working on my doctoral project which I had conceptualized during the Go4Health project. During my PhD, I established my own legal consultancy.

Inner Lantern glow-up

  • Lesson learned over the last year: Only you can hold yourself back, procrastination devalues you, be present, be attentive and always be open to learning.
  • What’s your current life motto: Trust in God.
  • What’s your favorite global health organization/agency and why: The World Health Organization—the heart of health law and policymaking, it is quick with guidelines that countries can domestically implement and take prompt action. There is also the Mercy Ships–I love it because it does what all governments ought to: provide treatment free of charge! The Mercy Ships represents kindness and affinity to justice.
  • Coolest global public health specialization to be in: Fiscal health law.
  • What’s one thing everyone in the global public health field should know: Access to information on health is not a given. Not every African country has a National Health Service website that provides a general overview of useful information. We need to make health information more accessible—digitally or mobile-enabled.
  • What’s the hardest lesson you’ve learned thus far: Access to quality healthcare is dependent on availability of funds.
  • Personal motivations for working at the intersection of health and law: When my grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer, we were told by the healthcare provider that we needed these medicines, XYZ was the cost, and that we had to bring her every month for chemotherapy…that was it. No information on the cancer, progression, etc. When I think about the health sector, I get angry. The medical mindset is profit-oriented in Kenya, and people don’t take the time to explain ways to take care of yourself or to listen to your family history. You’re only relying on what the doctor is telling you. The patient’s family is not given adequate information to make an informed decision about what’s happening. We lost our grandmother and then our grandfather soon after to renal failure. The doctor is considered the alpha. Health information is not accessible by everyday people. When I was in the UK, I experienced the National Health Service (NHS), where health information was available at the tip of your fingers; that’s what we need in Kenya (where access to internet is no longer a problem), provided we have political commitment. Currently, we are too focused on people’s economic rights, not the right to health.
  • Adopting an interconnected lens: As a Muslim, we have this saying: “when you die, all your deeds come to an end except that action which continues to benefit mankind.” I’m very religious and want to impact the community I live in. I envision creating a strong community that can serve as a model to other countries to replicate so there can be uniform growth globally. I hold justice very close to my heart, as well as equity and finance. I come from a diverse family of Punjabis on my mom’s side, which is heavily patriarchal, as well as Arabs and Christians on my dad’s side. I was extremely inspired by my paternal grandmother, who served as the principal decision-maker and was very confident in herself. I saw this and wanted to have my own identity, do things differently, and come up with my own solutions, which complemented my desire (rooted in my faith) to serve my community.
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