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October 16, 2015

The Task Force for Global Health turns 30

Three decades ago, Bill Foege, along with his CDC colleagues Carol Walters and Bill Watson, founded an organization to serve as a secretariat for a consortium of global health organizations. This consortium included WHO, the United Nations Development Programme, the World Bank, the Rockefeller Foundation and UNICEF. Today, this organization, The Task Force for Global Health, has evolved into the fourth largest nonprofit in the U.S., housing diverse and mission-driven programs ranging from Children Without Worms to our very own Public Health Informatics Institute

The panel discusses global health issues. From left to right: Bill Foege, Jim Kim, Matshidiso Moeti and Paul Farmer.

Earlier this week, a group gathered at the Carter Center to celebrate 30 years of work conducted by The Task Force. I was very fortunate to find myself in a room with some of the greatest minds on the global health landscape: Task Force founder and smallpox eradicator Bill Foege; World Bank Group president Jim Kim; Task Force president and CEO Mark Rosenberg; the first woman to be WHO regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti; and global health icon and health equity advocate Paul Farmer.

The celebration included a panel discussion, a screening of a Richard Stanley documentary about the last 30 years of The Task Force, and a video message from Bill and Melinda Gates, who took the opportunity to congratulate The Task Force and salute the work of Bill Foege. Addressing Dr. Foege, Melinda Gates said, “You’ve inspired me to be an impatient optimist.” Bill Gates added, “The legacy Bill Foege deserves is that we rid the world of infectious diseases.” Powerful words from two of the most influential figures in philanthropy!

In a pre-recorded video message, Bill Gates lauded Bill Foege and The Task Force for Global Health on their work to eliminate diseases of poverty.

The panel conversation that followed on the state of global health, poverty and disease was unsurprisingly lively, brilliant and inspiring. Paul Farmer made the case that one great barrier to true health equity is “a lack of imagination.” People are so accustomed to living in a world rooted in systems of inequality that they cannot conceive of a just world being an achievable goal, he said. When systematic inequity is the air we breathe and the water we swim in, it limits our ability to understand what is in reach—and a just world is certainly in reach, Dr. Farmer argued.

Jim Kim agreed, stating that we are the first generation in human history to see the end in sight for extreme global poverty—a statement that noticeably energized the room. The day in general was characterized by an invigorating and powerful optimism. This tone was inspiring and uplifting, not because it consisted of statements of blind hope (it didn’t), but because it was founded on reasonable and well-grounded predictions from minds who are the best equipped to be forward-looking about these things.

At the end of the event, I had the opportunity to address the attendees in a brief speech.

So how do we get to this equitable world? Jim Kim shared his thoughts, lauding the virtues of setting highly ambitious but achievable goals.

Following the discussion, I had the distinct privilege of closing out the event with a look to the future. It’s certainly a daunting task to take the stage to discuss your plans as the future Task Force for Global Health CEO as you look into the eyes of the two great men who have held that role—Bill Foege and Mark Rosenberg. Their legacies of innovation and large-scale alleviation of suffering across the world are both inspiration and aspiration for me. But this moment was a wonderful opportunity to discuss The Task Force’s vision for the next 30 years.

None of us can foretell the future, of course, yet we can still read the trends that will shape the future.   Some of these trends point to improved health and well-being: the diagnosis and intervention capabilities made available by technology, for example, or the ways the Internet democratizes education. No matter how the tools we use to do our work evolve, however, the fundamental underpinnings—namely compassion and collaboration—of The Task Force will remain immutable.

“If our collaborative work is our mind, then compassion is our heart. The individual lives and faces of those suffering from preventable diseases are what drive us to do the work that we do.”

If our collaborative work is our mind, then compassion is our heart. The individual lives and faces of those suffering from preventable diseases are what drive us to do the work that we do. The complex details of our work—system improvement, vaccine supply chain management, workforce development, etc.—are ultimately buoyed by some very simple ideas: no one in the world should die from a treatable or vaccine-preventable disease. No one should live in agony from intestinal worms or diseases like trachoma when a cure exists in the world. Everyone should have the chance from early childhood to build a healthy, fulfilling life. These are the beliefs that drive our work. This is why we get out of bed in the morning. This is why we fly into parts of the world that we can’t always be confident are safe for us.

As Bill Foege said at one point Monday afternoon: “No one knows right now what an equitable world looks like—but they will soon.” I fervently believe that The Task Force will be a major player in achieving this vision this century.

David A. Ross, ScD

President/CEO of the Task Force for Global Health, former director of PHII