Since Shawn Baker recently blogged about his experiences traveling with NY Times Columnist Nicholas Kristof, we thought it would be a good time to get to know Helen Keller International’s VP and Regional Director for Africa a little better. I sat down with Shawn who told me of a moving experience he had that helped determine the course of his life and his 29-year career as a leader in public health.
How this marine biologist got into public health: “What most people don’t know about me is that I’m supposed to be a marine biologist. I grew up watching too many Jacques Cousteau documentaries and studied marine biology at University. My foray into international development work started out as a two-year hiatus as a Peace Corps volunteer in what was then Zaïre (now Democratic Republic of Congo), which has ended up being a 29-year hiatus. It just shows the impact a life-changing experience can have.
I ended up staying a third year with Peace Corps, and, as you can imagine, there are innumerable experiences that change your perspective during such a time. But one was transformational for me: it was the death of a child. At that time, I worked with the local district hospital and a group of missionaries to set up well-baby clinics that provided growth monitoring and vaccinations during outreach visits to villages. One couple had already lost several children, and their only surviving child was less than two years old and very sickly. They became very close to me and were constantly seeking health care for their little son. One morning the mother knocked on my door early and the son literally died on my doorstep. It was one of the most heart-wrenching experiences of my life. It taught me that, while saving the world’s oceans remained important, I would not feel fulfilled unless I was doing something to more directly alleviate such pain and suffering.”
Most inspiring moments at Helen Keller International: “One of HKI’s flagship programs is vitamin A supplementation. Vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of blindness in children and a major contributor to child death globally; providing vitamin A supplements to children is one of the ways we combat the deficiency. To me, one of the greatest moments in the vitamin A story in Africa was in Niger in June 1999.
In order to have the intended effects on reducing under-five mortality, we needed to reach over 70% of children twice a year. For years we had delivered the capsules through routine delivery methods which never reached more than 50% of the kids in any country. The first global breakthrough was achieved through National Immunization Days set up to eradicate polio, which sought out all children. We partnered with the vaccination people to get vitamin A supplements integrated into these campaigns. When I first came to Niger, the country was planning its first polio days in 1997. Because I could show the training manuals and the surveillance work from HKI’s work in Bangladesh demonstrating the success of integrating vitamin A into polio days, the Government and partners agreed to undertake it in Niger. We ended up reaching over 90% of children, a tremendous success that had an impact on other countries.
Success brings its own challenges, however. Polio days occurred only once a year so we needed another strategy to reach the kids without polio days. We came up with the idea of National Micronutrient Days – a three-day event to give children vitamin A and iron supplements to pregnant women. A dedicated staff member worked various channels to obtain the commitment of Niger’s President to do the launch. The Presidency called the Ministry of Health to say, “we hear you are organizing National Micronutrient Days and President Wanké would really like to launch them.” They were dumbstruck. That June morning was actually a turning point for all of Africa. Since then twice-yearly events to deliver vitamin A, vaccines and other child survival interventions have become the norm. In the 15 countries in Africa where HKI supports these programs, we catalyzed reaching over 47 million children twice a year last year alone.”
What is most surprising about Shawn’s work: “It’s a constant source of surprises. I tell people who are entering the field that 90% of what you do relates to diplomacy, dealing with people and institutions and figuring out how things work. Your formal training seldom prepares you for actual field conditions, and each country and project are different. The real question is how to go about training for leadership in this area. You’re dealing with famine, civil war, power outages, any matter of things that become critical to getting things going.”
What makes HKI unique: “I think it’s our ability to work on multiple levels at once, and, through that, to achieve systemic change in how services are delivered. Many NGOs’ work is direct program implementation in a limited geographical area, or limited to advocacy, which can be disconnected from programmatic reality. We have our feet on the ground and at the same time are connected to national and regional policy and decision-making. We can take all of the emerging issues and test solutions for them in the field to see how they work.”
The inspiration of Helen Keller: “When you think of what she was able to overcome to lead her incredibly enriching life, with so much impact so many other people, it puts all of the day-to-day challenges we face in perspective. She did many things that were considered controversial at the time, and really shook people up, but she had a major impact on public health in the U.S. and the world.”
Favorite word: “I like transformation, such as with Homestead Food Production; women are obtaining knowledge and a means of earning an income. Child Health Days transformed how child survival services are delivered. I like seeing the transformational nature of our work.”
Do you have a question for Shawn? Leave it in the comment box below and we’ll make sure it gets answered.