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Jim Grant wanted all children to survive, and that drive saved millions

Bukhari Shiekh Aden of UNICEF helps in moving polio vaccines of an airplane in Warder district, Ethiopia, (UNICEF Ethiopia/2013/Sewunet)

When veteran aid worker Jim Grant took over as head of UNICEF in 1980, it was a crucial moment, globally and for the organization. The massive post-colonial improvements in Africa and Latin America were grinding to a halt. Conservative politics ushered in new leaders for the U.S. and U.K. And the U.N.’s Children’s Agency dithered in finding its direction.

The organization that Grant led for the next 25 years underwent significant changes that shaped the UNICEF of today and helped avert millions of child deaths. With a knack for convincing just about any world leader to get behind his vision, Grant ushered in the major push for child survival that led some of the poorest countries to avert preventable child deaths.

Jim Grant (UNICEF)

Jim Grant (UNICEF)

A new book, A Mighty Purpose, profiles Grant and his tenure at UNICEF. It describes how Grant attached himself to the idea that ensuring child survival was key and it could be achieved through the promotion of vaccines and oral-rehydration salts. They would help tackle leading child killers such as diarrhea and pneumonia.

“Grant was personally very magnetic,” said author Adam Fifield in an interview with Humanosphere. “People called him the mesmerizer, but he also was strategic. He decided in order to build momentum he had to rack up a few success stories. His first big one was in Columbia with a big immunization campaign. Then brokered a cease fire in El Salvador to allow the roll-out of vaccines. Doing that he won over his most stubborn detractors.”

That now includes staunch aid critic Bill Easterly, who praised Grant in his review of the book for the Wall Street Journal. As Easterly notes, Grant managed to achieve major health gains without dealing directly in politics. All children need vaccines, regardless of whether they live in a wealth democracy or a poor autocracy. While such a strategy can cause problems in other areas, coordinated top-down strategies can have immense impact on health care.

There was an urgency to the way that Grant discussed child survival, his former colleagues recalled in the book. They also tell of a somewhat brash leader who went against the grain in the organization established to help children after World War II. His style led to some internal strife and nearly prevented Grant from staying long enough to accomplish anything.

Yet, Grant managed to win people over and made the right gambles. When support inside UNICEF was weak, Grant went directly to country leaders. He even managed to gain the approval of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, leaders known for less-than-generous positions on poverty and welfare. Dictators like Syria’s President Hafez al-Assad also listened to Grant.

As Fifield tells it, Grant boldly played al-Assad and Syria’s disdain for the Turks to vaccinate more children. Grant challenged al-Assad by saying that his rivals had achieved great things through their campaign, maybe he could do better. It caused the Syrian leader to spring into action and increase polio vaccine coverage in 1-year-old children from 29 percent to 86 percent. Similar improvements were made in measles, TB, and the combination vaccine for diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough) and tetanus.

Syria was just one of many cases where Grant managed to get leaders to act quickly. He played on their egos and utilized their extraordinary power take action. Putting child survival at the forefront helped UNICEF work to reduce deaths, but it came with some side-effects.

“Some people felt like Grant was very focused on a small set of goals and that broadened to include a lot more in 1990. In being so focused on child survival all the time he did not pay enough attention to HIV/AIDS for example and child protection – some people feel other important issues took a back seat,” said Fifeld. “Some other people felt that the huge success that he had was not sustainable – there was not a built in mechanism to sustain that. I can see both sides of that. I can see why people will say that because after Grant left UNICEF did lose a lot of its momentum.”

But on the balance, Fifield sees Grant’s contribution as immensely important. He wrote the book because, while working for UNICEF USA, he stumbled upon an anthology of essays about Grant and his impact. Here was this man who helped lead a U.N. agency and change the course on child deaths, but nobody knew his name. With the book, the name Jim Grant is known and his efforts, warts and all, are laid bare before the reader.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]