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“Global Health Corps fellows work on issues such as HIV/AIDS, maternal and reproductive health, agriculture, nutrition, and malaria. One of the common threads is the need to build up human resources for health — great innovations can’t be implemented if there aren’t talented people to do so,” explained Barbara Bush, Co-Founder and CEO of Global Health Corps. In an interview with Bush, we discussed her passion for health equity, the challenges of building a fellowship organization from the ground up, measuring success and impact, key issues in global health today, and much more.
Rahim Kanani: Tell me a little bit about the founding of Global Health Corps. Was there a moment or experience that gave rise to the idea and vision of the organization?
Barbara Bush: Global Health Corps is building a global movement of young leaders working for health equity. I serendipitously met my five other co-founders through a brainstorming session at the AIDS 2031 Young Leaders Summit — a gathering of twenty-somethings focused on engaging young people in global health. We envisioned a solution to solving health challenges that slowly evolved into GHC — a jumping off point for young professionals from different backgrounds, but all committed to a more just world, and in a space where they could learn, grow, experience, and truly engage with global health and equity issues. My co-founders and I all arrived at our ‘aha moment’ from different places, but my deep commitment to health equity was born five years earlier during a trip to Uganda. I was there for the roll-out of the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), and saw firsthand the extreme disparities in health access — on account of random circumstance like the place or family into which one was born – and how much this affected one’s entire life. The lack of justice in whether or not someone could live a healthy life cemented my own decision to work on health equity moving forward.
Kanani: After you received your first grant from Google.org in 2008, what was the process like to recruit the first round of fellows, and what were some of the challenges along the way?
Bush: Our first class of GHC fellows was just 22 members strong — small, but mighty — placed within eight partner organizations in four countries in East and Southern Africa and the US for yearlong positions. GHC was, and still is, a start-up model organization — we are constantly growing and changing, examining what we’re doing well and how we can be better. Inherently, there is risk involved in iterating as an organization, and we take chances that don’t always result predictably. This was the case with our first class of fellows. We had logistical challenges; we had the unknown, which was a huge challenge in itself. But we had also poured a tremendous amount of thought, care, time and planning into GHC’s model and we believed deeply in what we were doing. In the end, it was amazing to see our dream take shape and when the first-ever class of fellows completed their first year, we were overwhelmed with relief and excitement for the next year to come. Now, we are celebrating our fifth birthday.
Kanani: What kind of work do fellows do, and how are you measuring the success of the program?
Bush: Our fellows work on a wide range of issues and they work in both rural and urban settings across Africa and the US. Through working within a vast number of stellar organizations, like Partners In Health and Clinton Health Access Initiative, fellows are able to address a variety of health equity challenges. Diversity is a cornerstone of our program because innovative solutions come from working on all sides of the problem. The work our fellows do hinges on the unique contexts in which they are placed, the organizations with which they work, and the needs of the communities they serve. From counseling homeless youth on chronic disease management in Newark, New Jersey, to building an electronic medical records system in Malawi, to ensuring HIV-positive mothers have the tools they need to birth HIV-negative babies in Uganda, our fellows are positively affecting the health of thousands of people around the world.
One way we measure success is examining the path our fellows take after they leave us, and whether they have become lifelong advocates and leaders on global health equity. Our vision isn’t just for fellows to make an impact in their year of service, but to build lifelong advocates committed to social change. We have seen that come to life, and are blown away by the work our alums continue to do within Ministries of Health, high impact non-profits, or creative social enterprises. Another way we measure success is how fast the program is growing in accordance to interest from potential fellows and partners. We have grown exponentially in five years and are still going strong. It’s clear there is a need for this model and this model is working.
Kanani: As you welcome your sixth class of fellows, your largest ever at 128 individuals from 22 countries, why do you think the program has been so successful?
Bush: I think the three key components of our program – diversity, partnership, and equity – really resonate with the millennial generation. Young people, particularly in the US, often get a bad rap as being apathetic and disconnected. But a huge part of the success of GHC is rooted in the reality that this is absolutely not the case. In fact, I believe that we are one of the most globally tuned in and connected generations yet. We have come of age in a world connected through information technology and social media, and young people today understand the implications of that. We have seen an upswing in interest, including 5,000 applicants for fewer than 130 fellowship spots this last round, because people want to engage and join this movement for health equity. They want to learn and push themselves, connect with others, and use their skills to create a more just world. That vision and the incredible drive of our fellows and partners have made GHC successful.
Kanani: Looking at the global health space more broadly, what are some of the key issues that come to mind, and what should the international community be paying special attention to?
Bush: Global Health Corps fellows work on issues such as HIV/AIDS, maternal and reproductive health, agriculture, nutrition, and malaria. One of the common threads is the need to build up human resources for health — great innovations can’t be implemented if there aren’t talented people to do so. This means building the capacity of individuals to not only deliver care and medicines, but also craft innovative solutions to major health challenges. This is how GHC is working toward the realization of health as a human right. Our fellows are those human resources for health — they are the movement — and they are also working to build it.
Kanani: Finally, what's your vision for Global Health Corps 5 or 10 years down the line?
Bush: In our first five years, Global Health Corps has focused on identifying, mobilizing and connecting emerging cross-sector global health leaders, supporting fellows in their placements and solidifying our programming to ensure the one-year program is impactful and rewarding. By convening a diverse group of leaders and partners to ensure a broad range of perspectives is represented, we have built a robust network of global health leaders.
Moving forward, our focus will be to continue strengthening and expanding our current fellowship program as well as harnessing the energy, diversity, skills, and passion of our community after they have completed the fellowship. With a 2% acceptance rate of applicants, and a 50% acceptance rate of potential placement organizations, GHC will continue to increase the number of fellows and expand our growth that is clustered geographically in a hub model to maximize collective impact. We now have a critical mass of fellows in our six countries of operations and as they grow in their jobs, spheres of influence, and professional development, we want to spark, spread, and amplify their individual and collective impact. GHC is growing fast and ready to scale-up in a big way, harnessing the power of our movement to really help move the needle on global health equity.
Barbara Bush is Co-Founder and CEO of Global Health Corps, an organization that aims to mobilize a global community of young leaders to build a movement for health equity.