By Laurie Lee ( This article was originally published on Impatient Optimists, the blog of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on September 13, 2012)
Today, in Abuja, the Government of Nigeria and the Gates Foundation signed an agreement that will allow the Gates Foundation to appoint a Country Representative in Nigeria.
As the Gates Foundation’s Director for Africa, I have been in Nigeria several times recently. Nigeria is one of the most critical countries in Africa for achieving the Foundation’s objectives to tackle childhood diseases and poverty. It has the largest population in Africa and at least its fair share of challenges. It is the only country in Africa that still has endemic polio. One in 7 children die before their fifth birthday and Nigeria has one of the 10 worst rates of mothers dying in childbirth anywhere in the world. That’s why it is one of the first three countries in Africa where the Foundation has decided to appoint an on-the-ground Country Representative.
Laurie Lee and Nigeria’s Minister of National Planning, Dr. Shamsuddeen Usman
During these recent visits, I have had several conversations about some of the challenges of working in Nigeria – including the risks of violence and corruption. But they’ve also been an opportunity to see the tremendous opportunities for progress in Nigeria. At the individual level, I have been meeting great candidates for our Country Representative position. The Nigerian government made a bold commitment at the Family Planning Summit in July to triple funding for contraceptives and increase usage by 2 percent a year. And the opportunities for economic growth in Nigeria are widely reported.
So, on balance, we are optimistic about Nigeria and I’m pleased that people I have met in Nigeria recently have seen the Gates Foundation’s decision to appoint a Nigeria Country Representative as confirmation of that. We are most certainly also impatient optimists. We want to see children, mothers and farmers in particular in Nigeria given the opportunities to lead healthy and productive lives – today.
By placing Country Representatives in Nigeria, Ethiopia and South Africa, the Gates Foundation is trying to ensure that we can work even more effectively – and literally more quickly – with our partners on the ground to transform the lives of children, mothers and farmers.
Our Country Reps will not change the role of our expert Program Officers in Seattle, who manage our grants to organisations working on specific issues, such as agricultural development or vaccines. But our Country Reps will work with our partners on the ground to help them achieve our shared goals. Our Reps will strengthen our day-to-day partnerships with governments, civil society, business, the media, academia and others, to help us better understand the complex context on the ground, how we can best contribute, and to spot new opportunities for the Foundation to enable transformative change.
In February, our first African Country Rep, Haddis Tadesse, arrived in Addis Ababa. He is serving as the foundation’s representative to the federal government of Ethiopia and the African Union, which is based in Addis Ababa. Haddis grew up in Ethiopia and went to university in the United States. More recently, David Allen was appointed our Country Rep in South Africa. David previously worked in South Africa for 10 years fighting HIV and TB, before coming to work for the Gates Foundation.
We expect these new Country Reps to inform and improve the quality of our internal decision making, establish and strengthen critical relationships with key partners, and provide proximity and access to decision-makers. These are the differences we are planning to see. I’m equally excited to see what unpredicted changes it will make. Either way, we will be assessing what difference it makes, including surveying several our critical partners in these countries.