Barbara Bush: A president’s daughter and global health leader

Barbara Bush, co-founder and CEO of Global Health Corps. Photo by: Fortune Live Media / CC BY

Barbara Pierce Bush knows a thing or two about leadership. The daughter of former U.S. President George W. Bush co-founded the Global Health Corps in 2008 with five young entrepreneurs, and is now helping to create a global movement of emerging leaders in health equity.

Devex spoke with Bush earlier this week after her return from Kigali, where she met with GHC fellows embedded across East Africa with partner organizations like the Clinton Health Access Initiative and Partners in Health.

Why did you choose global health as your cause?

Two things sort of happened at the same time. When [in 2004, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief] was being launched, I was a junior in college. I went to East Africa with my parents when the rollout of PEPFAR was taking place. It was amazing to me just to see how access to drugs could completely turn peoples’ lives and communities around.

You always hear people saying these stories of, “I went somewhere and everyone was dying, and I came back two years later and people were living very productive lives.” I definitely had that sort of moment, seeing how access to medicine can completely change what was going on in a community where you would honestly see funerals all the time and then people were able to live with an illness.

When I went on that trip, obviously there were very stark contrasts of people who were about to die from HIV, people who had access to antiretrovirals and people who you had no idea they were HIV positive.

At the same time, a professor of mine at Yale who was HIV-positive passed away. The trip for PEPFAR and then, really quickly afterwards, my professor passing away from the same illness made me think.

I was very struck both by what I saw on that trip and then knowing someone that was living in a very affluent community, working at one of the best universities in the United States … and he didn’t have access to medicine either. The two happened near each other chronologically and my interest peaked. Both things made me want to learn more about what can be done about this.

You talk a lot about the need for a different kind of leadership, and one of the Global Health Corps’ goals is to create the next generation of global health leaders. Where is global health leadership lacking right now?

Truthfully, I think a lot is going right. I think that people forget that particularly right now in terms of budget discussions et cetera, we’ve done so much in global health over the past 20 years that it’s amazing. We know how to treat and prevent so many of the illnesses and diseases that exist and also why people die. That’s incredible, to have that knowledge and … to know how to deal with something. It’s a matter of actually doing it, of actually acting on this knowledge.

I think so much of the conversation is very much focused on the developed nations and countries that aren’t. But these are global health challenges — it doesn’t matter if there is a border. We deal with a lot of the same issues in the United States.

I think one thing that’s really appealing to me in terms of thinking about what you need in leaders is really thinking through how you can learn what’s working in Rwanda and apply it to what’s not working in New York. How can we really be smarter around how we’re approaching these challenges?

There’s definitely criticism in the global health field around a lot of issues being siloed and a lot of approaches being siloed and [I find it interesting to think] through how you can change those major structural issues to get better solutions.

What was your parents’ advice when you started with the Global Health Corps?

They gave me a lot of advice and still do, which I’m very thankful for. Obviously, I got interested in these issues through them, through PEPFAR.

I started the Global Health Corps with other people, we had six co-founders and we really thought about this. There was comfort in thinking there were six of us and we will think through these issues together. But I had another job at that time and I was very nervous with quitting my job because we [the Global Health Corps] did not exist as an organization [yet]. My parents definitely encouraged me to quit and move on this because we were really confident in this model and eager to see if it would work or not.

My parents encouraged me to give it a shot and that if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. You don’t want a good idea sitting on your to-do list forever and not do anything about it. They were super supportive, which was great.

I think it’s fun because they obviously care tremendously about these issues as well and have seen how PEPFAR and the President’s Malaria Initiative and other global health initiatives can completely change people’s lives. It’s fun talking about these with them because they understand what I’m talking about.

Find out more about the Global Health Corps and its 2012 fellowships, for which applications are due Feb. 17.

About the author

  • Rolf Rosenkranz

    Rolf Rosenkranz oversees a talented team of in-house journalists, correspondents and guest contributors located around the globe. Since joining Devex in early 2008, Rolf has been instrumental in growing its fledgling news operation into the leading online source for global development news and analysis. Previously, Rolf was managing editor at Inside Health Policy, a subscription-based news service in Washington. He has reported from Africa for the Johannesburg-based Star and its publisher, Independent News & Media, as well as the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, a German daily.