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3 Questions with Michelle Gardner: The Future of Global Health

| 4 Minute Read
Health | Cross-Sector Development
Private Sector Engagement

From drones to finding common ground with the private sector, Michelle Gardner discusses her vision for achieving the health-related Sustainable Development Goals.

What innovation in the health sector are you most excited about right now?

First, I think it’s important to define “innovation,” as I think it has become an overused and misunderstood term. I side with the view which USAID and others in development and humanitarian assistance have put forth. That is, innovation is something — a technology, product, or approach — which is either new or “old but used in new ways,” that significantly advances development goals. Key within this is that the innovation can actually be used, scaled, and sustained.

With this definition in mind, there are so many exciting innovations today in development, and many more clearly on the horizon, that it’s difficult to pick just one or even just a few. Perhaps because of my background in and passion for maternal and child health, as well as where my focus has been in supporting Chemonics’ current work, the innovations today which excite me most are those which have demonstrated potential to significantly improve the availability of services and medicines essential to the health of women and children. Most notably, those women and children that are hard to reach.

For example, organizations like Zipline are working to help low- and middle-income countries pilot and scale the use of drones to deliver medicines to remote communities, and organizations like Global Good have developed containers that enable vaccines to be effectively stored where there is no electricity. We are working with counterparts in low- and middle-income countries to develop and scale new approaches and processes to expand access to services by tying development of provider skills to the health needs of the populations they serve. These kinds of innovations have demonstrated the potential to be game changers in bringing health care closer to the people who most need it.

What is your vision for Chemonics’ health work over the next five years? How do you see Chemonics contributing to the health-related Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

In setting the vision for Chemonics in health, I’ve considered a few things. First, the determinants or drivers of today’s key health issues are not necessarily health-related, and for the most part, they never have been. Rather, it’s economic, socio-cultural, political, and now increasingly environmental factors that continue to drive health issues. The new SDGs focus on each of these and other sectors, recognizing the interconnectedness of development challenges across sectors. However, funding and the often related design of development and humanitarian assistance largely continues to lag behind this recognition.

Second, Chemonics is not solely a health organization. Rather, we are a large, multidisciplinary organization which works in health among other sectors of development. My vision for Chemonics in health is to leverage today’s (and what will continue to be tomorrow’s) broader operating environment, build on and further align what we do and how we do it with global goals, and draw on Chemonics’ multidisciplinary expertise and partnerships to design, implement, and promote cross-sectoral solutions to health challenges. That is, to further Chemonics’ position and contribution as both a leader and a partner in cross-sectoral development agendas, initiatives, and programs.

You have an extensive background in engaging the private sector in health programming. What role do you think the private sector needs to play to achieve the SDGs?

To start, it’s important to recognize the breadth and complexity of the private sector and how it is changing. First, there are many different kinds of private sector actors: health care providers, pharmaceutical companies, logistics service providers, investment groups, information technology companies, the list goes on. There is no such thing as “the private sector” as a singular group, and each actor has their own interests and capabilities in contributing to the SDGs.

Second and broadly, the private sector is continuing to shift in how it operates. Private sector organizations are moving away from traditional public relations-driven corporate social responsibility programs to organizing and managing themselves as global citizens. That is, to look at their impact on their community and the environment on par with their bottom line. Further, private sector investment in international development is significant and growing. Today’s private sector already has been and will increasingly play a key role working toward achieving the SDGs.

In my view, across all the sector’s different segments, we must think of private sector actors as true partners in public health. Traditionally, the private sector has been engaged as a donor within public health through corporate social responsibility programs, but there are many opportunities to engage more deeply. Beyond bringing critical financial resources, the private sector can bring knowledge and expertise to achieve global public health goals through advances in technology and innovation. Partnerships can also provide real win-wins for the private sector. Public health isn’t only a public service anymore — for example, there are a many private service providers who are looking for clients and can take pressure off the public sector by caring for a greater share of patients. Public and private actors can also work together to help ensure that private sector health services are affordable and high-quality through insurance and other financing, which is beneficial to private providers while also helping the public health sector reach its goals.

In order to facilitate these partnerships, though, it’s necessary to break down the distrust between public and private actors by finding common ground, a common language, and common goals. By showing private sector actors how they can gain from collaboration, highlighting to the public sector how partnership will help them achieve their goals, and then creating a space for dialogue, it is possible to bring together actors who didn’t previously see the value in cooperating.