Gates Foundation CEO shares insights on Ethiopia visit and foundation’s ongoing commitment to Africa

Mark Suzman, CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is scheduled to visit Ethiopia from April 22 to April 26, 2024. His trip aims to meet with foundation partners and grantees who are at the forefront of addressing health challenges and creating economic opportunities in the country. Ahead of his visit, Mark Suzman shared insights in an interview with Capital’s Groum Abate on the foundation’s ongoing projects and future plans in Ethiopia and broader Africa. The conversation reveals the foundation’s strategies for engagement and its deep commitment to improving lives across the continent. Excerpts;

Capital: Welcome to Ethiopia. What brings you to the country and what are your plans during the visit?

Mark Suzman: Thank you. It’s truly a pleasure to be back in Ethiopia. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s commitment to the country – and the African continent – is integral to who we are.

Ethiopia has an incredible track record of progress, and despite real setbacks, it has enormous potential to save and improve even more lives. I’m excited to learn from our Ethiopian partners about what’s working well and what challenges still remain in key sectors like healthcare, agriculture, and digital public infrastructure, among others.

We’re proud of the partnerships we’ve built with Ethiopian leaders, innovators, and health professionals over the last two decades. Ethiopia’s most valuable asset is its people – and at the end of the day, all our work with the government, donors, and the private sector comes back to ensuring every Ethiopian can reach their full potential.

While I’m here, I’ll see some of the progress that has been made by the Health Extension Program an initiative that, together with Government investment in primary health care and expanding the health workforce, helped reduced maternal and infant mortality substantially from 2000 to 2015. Given recent shocks and the changing needs of the population, Ethiopia’s leadership is rightfully looking to evolve these programs, and other innovative service delivery approaches, to achieve more equitable, sustained progress.

Capital: With the global challenges we face today, what do you see as the most pressing issues for the Gates Foundation to address?

Mark Suzman: Over the last few years, the entire world – and Africa in particular – has experienced a confluence of crises. Two pressing issues stand out in particular: poverty and health. These areas are deeply intertwined— progress in one significantly impacts the other—and they also run the risk of being neglected.

It’s important to acknowledge the incredible progress that’s been made in Africa in recent years. Between 2000 and 2015, Ethiopia achieved most of the Millenium Development Goals and, across sub-Saharan Africa, we saw a significant decline in poverty rates and improvements in health outcomes during the same period.

However, significant challenges remain. Many countries are being forced to make impossible tradeoffs because of crushing debt and a lack of affordable financing. Others still bear scars from COVID and its health and economic shocks. Climate crises, conflicts, and displacements of people have led to backsliding against hard-won progress.

We will continue to invest in programs that build on the progress of the last two decades and address these ongoing issues directly through our partners by supporting access to vaccines, strengthening healthcare systems, and promoting economic development initiatives that empower individuals and communities to lift themselves out of poverty.

Capital: How do you see the Gates Foundation evolving its strategies and priorities in the coming years?

Mark Suzman: For nearly 25 years, our mission has remained constant: to create a world where everyone has the chance to live a healthy, productive life. In the coming years, we will continue to focus on areas like global health, agricultural development and climate adaptation,, women’s economic power, and the digital public infrastructure that fuels financial inclusion and access to health and education. We’ll also continue working with our partners to advocate for development assistance and inclusive international financing models.

But we know that the best solutions to the continent’s challenges will come from African innovators leading the way to develop African solutions. That’s why we’ll continue to deepen our partnerships and collaborations with governments, nongovernmental organizations, donors, multilateral organizations, and the private sector—so that African innovators can develop solutions that help people not just today (for example, getting vaccines to children who need them), but for decades to come (developing the next generation of vaccines).

Capital: How does the Gates Foundation measure the impact of its initiatives and programs?

Mark Suzman: Everything we do comes back to impact, which we measure in lives saved and opportunities created for all to reach their full potential. That starts with access to essential healthcare, which translates to a decrease in maternal mortality rates, a reduction in preventable childhood deaths, and wider access to life-saving medicines and treatments. Alongside our partners, we’re working toward a future where mothers make it safely through childbirth, children grow up healthy, and everyone’s basic needs are met through robust healthcare systems. To get there, we support initiatives that strengthen healthcare infrastructure, train healthcare workers, and promote preventative measures.

We also recognize that societies can’t progress if women don’t have economic power. When women have equal access to financial tools and education, when they can start businesses and make and control their money, and when they can make decisions about their health, it’s not just the women themselves who benefit—so do their communities and even their countries. We support programs that help women break the cycle of poverty, through financial tools and financial literacy, access to loans and savings accounts, prenatal care and nutrition interventions, and other means.

The foundation also focuses on long-term food security and climate resilience. Success here involves not only increased crop yields for farmers but also the adoption of sustainable agricultural practices. We do this by supporting the development and delivery of drought-resistant seeds and hardy livestock breeds, digital tools to help farmers get ahead of weather shocks, and other innovations that increase productivity.

Finally, we continue to fund and work closely with on-the-ground partners to support the country’s most vulnerable. This aligns with our commitment to promote diversity, equity and inclusion across the foundation and its operations. We are committed to building a workforce and partnerships that are representative of the communities we serve.

Capital: In what ways do you collaborate with other organizations to maximize your impact?

Mark Suzman: We do all our work with and through our partners – whether they’re local institutions, governments, or multilateral organizations.

In our priority countries, we work with local organizations – who know best what their communities need and want – to improve health and development outcomes. We also work with research institutions and government agencies to support national development priorities and advocate for policy changes that will help more people live healthy and productive lives.

We also frequently co-create and co-fund initiatives with other organizations, working collaboratively to pool resources and leverage our diverse strengths to achieve a greater impact than any of us could working alone. For example, we work closely with Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance, providing funding for research and innovation that supports vaccine delivery to low-and middle-income countries. Our alliance with Gavi also enables us to complement and support the Global Polio Eradication Initiative’s work on strengthening routine immunization against polio in Gavi-supported countries.

Capital: Is your foundation doing anything to help mitigate the impact of the conflict in Northern Ethiopia?

Mark Suzman: Our thoughts are with everyone affected by the conflict. We understand that armed conflict of any nature can have a humanitarian impact on the most vulnerable communities. In just the past few years, the country has experienced COVID, drought, floods, a locust outbreak, a major conflict, and displacement of people. Taken together, these shocks have disrupted so many of Ethiopia’s hard-won gains.

We continue to work collaboratively with the Ethiopian government to improve health and economic development outcomes across the country and hope that individuals impacted by political instability and armed conflict can find peaceful solutions to these issues, as they are critical for the overall well-being of their citizens.   

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