At the Hilton Humanitarian Symposium in New York on September 30, 2016, Skoll Foundation President & CEO Sally Osberg had the honor of introducing David Ross, President & CEO of the Task Force for Global Health and this year’s recipient of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize.
In this recent Spotlight, Sally explored how Task Force founder Dr. Bill Foege’s approach to ending smallpox was a quintessential example of a social entrepreneurial approach.
Below is her speech from the Hilton Prize event.
Thank you, Peter [Laugharn, President & CEO of the Hilton Foundation]. I’m truly humbled—to use a word that has resonated so powerfully throughout the day—to join you, the Hilton Foundation, your honoree and guests here today.
As the Presidential campaign swings into its final weeks, we’re continuously reminded of just how dark the mood is out there. At a moment when huge swaths of the public distrust the very leaders and institutions charged with safeguarding all we hold dear—not only here in the US, but throughout the world—we gather not in shadow but in light.
Our great gift right here, right now is to celebrate the leadership of an institution, and the institution itself, that stand for all we know in our hearts to be true and enduring about humanity at its best.
The story of how we got to this moment goes back nearly 200 years. In 1796, British physician and scientist Edward Jenner first inoculated a young boy with cowpox, successfully testing the world’s first vaccine, the vaccine that would ultimately conquer smallpox.
But as anyone who’s worked to bring about change at scale knows—and change at scale is what was called for in the case of smallpox, which was estimated to infect 60 percent of the population—discovery of a vaccine, as with any technological breakthrough, then as now, was only the first step.
So while eradicating smallpox from the planet had long been a priority, it was not until 1959—more than 150 years later—that governments gathered at the annual World Health Assembly to formally ratified that very goal. To meet their ambitious target, they called for collaboration—among governments and legions of partners ranging from village based missionaries to global institutions like the WHO.
Dr. William Foege, the first pioneering leader we honor here, found himself on the front lines of this war, working in Africa as a consultant to the Center for Disease Control. Realizing the scope of the challenge to vaccinate 100% of the world’s population was simply too vast, he wondered if the disease could be stopped by vaccinating only those who had been exposed to others already infected.
The son of a Lutheran minister, Dr. Foege tapped the network of local ministers he knew to be working in Eastern Nigeria, and had them canvas every village, identifying active cases of smallpox. He then had his team of public health workers vaccinate only those villagers who’d been exposed.
The strategy—which came to be known as “surveillance and containment” or “circle vaccination”—worked.
So forget what you think you may know about social entrepreneurship. This is what change at scale looks like; this is what social entrepreneurship is!
In one village after another, smallpox began to recede and ultimately disappear. Dr. Foege’s innovative approach was employed across African and eventually in India, a major stronghold of the disease.
In 1980, the WHO officially declared smallpox to be the first consequential human disease eradicated from the planet.
This wonderful victory was the shot in the arm the WHO needed to set an even more ambitious target: to immunize the world’s children against diseases for which vaccines existed. But bureaucracies, as most of us know, aren’t especially nimble or swift. And so, the effort languished.
Once again, it was Bill Foege who helped convene UN agency heads, philanthropic leaders, the World Bank and others to see what might be done to accelerate the pace and success of the endeavor.
From that storied gathering The Task Force for Child Survival was born. Its charter was clear: to facilitate increased rates of vaccination. In 1984, when the Task Force began its work, just 20% of the world’s children had been immunized. Over the next 6 years, that rate soared to more than 80%, thanks in large part to the Task Force’s leadership.
This remarkable milestone was announced at the 1990 Summit for Children at the U.N. The effort was justly heralded as “the greatest peacetime endeavor the world has ever seen.”
The second leader we celebrate this afternoon is Dr. Mark Rosenberg. Dr. Rosenberg took the helm of what had now become the Task Force for Global Health in 2000, charting the extraordinary trajectory of growth that continues to this day. It was he who brought the International Trachoma Initiative on board, and it is he who is credited with making the Task Force the 4th largest not-for-profit organization in the U.S.
More importantly than growing the organization, however, over the first few years of his tenure, Dr. Rosenberg codified, socialized and put into practice the values and principles underlying effective collaboration.
The first of those values was compassion. In 2010, Dr. Rosenberg gathered a remarkable public health leaders’ symposium on the subject of compassion—among whose attendees was President Jimmy Carter.
For the Task Force, compassion is non-negotiable. Mark Rosenberg and his colleagues, and their partners, believe that the throbbing heart of effective collaboration in public health is a profound sense of “shared humanity.”
To be effective, all must see—truly see—the faces of those who are served, not as some amorphous population or anonymous sample, but as individuals whose lives and experience, whose suffering and whose health are etched on their faces.
At the same time, Mark has been steadfast in insisting on the highest and most vigorous application of scientific rigor, which has required members to invest the time and discipline necessary to get to a shared understanding of what the last mile to success for any of their initiatives would look like—and require.
Little wonder that the Task Force’s Board Chair, Jane Thorpe, announced Dr. Rosenberg’s decision to retire with “mixed emotions” early this year.
Ms. Thorpe’s letter of announcement went on, however, to note that “exceptional leadership runs deep at the Task Force,” and that David Ross would succeed Dr. Rosenberg.
Dr. Ross joined the Task Force in 2000 as director of a program to improve immunization record systems for children. David is an engineer by training. Early in his career, he worked in the defense industry…yes, on the nuclear weapons arsenal. In time, however, he decided to apply his passion for technology and information to saving lives, and to the domain of public health.
At the Task Force, he has focused on the role of information, establishing the Public Health Informatics Institute and leading world-wide efforts to improve health outcomes with accurate information.
More recently, David has been instrumental in creating CHAMPS, the Childhood Health and Mortality Prevention Surveillance Network, spurred by the reality that six million children under the age of five still die every year from preventable causes. CHAMPS began its groundbreaking work last year.
Yes, exceptional leadership at the Task Force runs deep, and it runs broad, through its network of partners in communities all over the world. And yes, it’s leadership of this kind we all value and know to be a true expression of our shared humanity and worth celebrating.
Architect of the E.U. Jean Monnet once said that it takes individuals to create change, but it takes institutions to make it last. In the Task Force for Global Health, both are at work.
So now, it’s my great privilege to ask you to welcome Task Force President David Ross.
Photo credit: Conrad N. Hilton Foundation