Hilton Foundation honors most influential, invisible group in global health

A boy helps man with river blindness in Sierra Leone. The Task Force for Global Health is working with partners to eliminate river blindness by 2025. Photo Credit: Olivier Asselin, courtesy of the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases.

Some of the biggest success stories in the global fight against poverty and inequity are health stories: massive reductions in maternal and child mortality in most countries, the elimination or near-elimination of once ubiquitous diseases like smallpox, measles or polio, much wider access to live-saving drugs against HIV … the list goes on.

Now, the easiest way to tell a story is with a single protagonist, be that a heroic individual or an organization. And this is why the Atlanta-based Task Force for Global Health, originally dubbed the Task Force for Child Survival (because of its initial focus in the mid-1980s on expanding child immunization), has succeeded in making its story so difficult to tell despite driving some of the most significant achievements in global health.

Dave Ross, CEO of Task Force for Global Health

Dave Ross, CEO of Task Force for Global Health

“Our organization’s impact has come from bringing people together to work on a common goal,” said Dave Ross, president and CEO of the Task Force. The best way to bring people together on a task, Ross said, is to subsume your own institutional ego and generously distribute credit to others.

“That’s probably why we are not so well-known publicly,” he said.

Many leading lights in the global health arena – people like physician-activist Paul Farmer and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim – have credited the Task Force’s approach with having made possible some of the field’s biggest wins, beginning with expanding routine childhood immunizations worldwide from about 20 percent coverage to more than 80 percent in the 1980s.

President Obama awards Foege 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom. White House photo

President Obama awards Foege 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom. White House photo

“It’s a lot easier to get things done when you have a low profile,” said Bill Foege, the physician widely credited with coming up with the strategy that rid the world of smallpox, a former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, advisor to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the founder of the Task Force (and we should mention, on the board of directors at Humanosphere).

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The Task Force was launched in 1984, Foege said, because the World Health Organization and its sister organization UNICEF couldn’t agree on who would lead the charge to improve childhood vaccination rates.

“Everyone was very frustrated … egos were getting in the way of getting the job done,” he said. So the heads of the WHO, Halfdan Mahler, and Jim Grant of UNICEF asked Foege to create a temporary task force to “facilitate” a more collaborative approach.

“They told us that we should stay very low profile and never use the word ‘coordinate’ … because people don’t like being coordinated,” he said. “We became the mortar between these two big blocks of stone … yet they could never come to agreement on even drafting a memo of understanding defining our relationship. So I suppose, in essence, we didn’t really have a legal agreement to operate.”

The impact of this secretive and quasi-legal task force was to save millions of children’s lives through a massive collaborative effort to vaccinate kids in poor countries. In 1990, when Grant announced having reached 80 percent of all children worldwide, he called it the “largest peacetime mobilization in history.”

Most of the credit for this huge success in reducing child death rates through immunization went to UNICEF, WHO and other organizations then working on the front lines of international health. Those who arguably made it all happen – the facilitators – remained in the background, of course.

Today, Ross, Foege and Mark Rosenberg, the Task Force’s director who preceded Ross and followed Foege, are in New York City today to receive the world’s largest humanitarian award – the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation’s $2 million Humanitarian Prize. (We also need to say that the Hilton Foundation provides financial support to Humanosphere, but we would have written about this anyway.)

Mark Rosenberg

Mark Rosenberg

In today’s podcast we interview Rosenberg, who for 15 years or so presided over the organization’s transformation into a much bigger and more broadly focused facilitator and ask if what Ross calls the group’s “secret sauce” maybe needs to be made a lot less secret.

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It’s a paradox: The Task Force’s strategy of operating behind the scenes and shifting credit to others is so successful it deserves a bit more hype. We need to make higher profile the value of remaining low profile.

Global health is a big thing these days, and is going through a transitional phase where funding is flat and some say needs to focus less on targeted disease-specific projects and more on systemic change. That likely means more collaboration, which everyone publicly favors but many privately worry about how it will effect fund-raising or their turf. We ask Rosenberg for his perspective on how best to resolve the paradox.

As always, before the interview, I talk with podcast producer and social media manager Imana Gunawan about some of the top stories in the Humanosphere, including new data on big reductions in child and maternal mortality worldwide (the U.S. excepted, unfortunately). Imana noted another story, by East Coast correspondent Tom Murphy, in which surveys show most Americans are unaware of the progress being made against extreme poverty. We also highlight a fight between the Catholic Church and the Mexican government‘s attempt to smear the reputations of three murdered priests. Listen in!

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.