LOS ANGELES — Plunking down next to me at a round table near the ballroom stage of the Beverly Hills Hilton is a noted medical scientist, arms tightly folded, face flushed, and a glean of sweat on his balding head. He’s just returned from the podium where he made thoughtful remarks while reading from a powerpoint presentation in front of a few hundred people. I lean in to ask in a whisper how he feels. “A relief,” he sighs, and giggles, delighted to be out of the spotlight once again.
Dr. John Clemens, who leads the Bangladesh-based medical research institute icddr,b, was giving the acceptance speech for one of the most prestigious and sought-after awards in the global development community: the $2 million Hilton Humanitarian Prize bestowed by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation each year for the past 22 years. While we’re sitting in the same hotel that hosts the Golden Globes, one of this town’s biggest events, it feels as though we couldn’t be further away.
Even with a cumbersome name, icddr,b was the star of last week's show. The awkward acronym refers to the nearly 60 year old institute’s early focus on diarrheal disease and its location in Bangladesh. Its crowning achievement is pioneering oral rehydration solution, the mixture of clean water, sugar, and salt that works miracles for kids battling cholera. Some 50 million lives are said to have been saved from this simple intervention.
Dr. Roger Glass — who directs the Fogarty International Center at the National Institutes of Health and worked at icddr,b early in his career, along with a who’s-who of global health leaders who cut their teeth there — partly credited the institute’s placement in a low-resource setting with its inventiveness. And it does have an impressive list of cheap interventions among its achievements. Among them is community health worker program that helped reduce Bangladesh’s fertility rate from 6.5 to 2.3 in just two decades, developing an inexpensive cholera vaccine that can be administered orally, and creating an uncomplicated mechanism — made from a soap bottle, plastic tubes, and an oxygen source — to help children suffering from pneumonia (one of the leading causes of child mortality) to breathe.
Today it’s pushing a birth mat that can reduce deaths for women who give birth at home. The material is designed to absorb just the normal amount of blood that results from childbirth; if more arrives and can’t be absorbed, it’s a sign to the woman and her family that they need to rush her to a medical facility for a blood transfusion.
Surely the Hilton Foundation’s prize jury selected icddr,b in part because of the moment we’re living in. Many thought the institute’s original mission would be practically obsolete by now, that cholera would be a infection for the history books. But the unprecedented crisis of displaced people and uncontrolled urbanization has been a friend to this disease. Just since 2013, the organization has intervened with its cholera vaccine in more than 40 crises. It’s now working in Yemen — the site of the worst cholera outbreak today and one that may eventually rival Haiti for the modern record — and right in its own backyard of Bangladesh, administering cholera vaccines to half a million Rohingya refugees.
It’s an impressive and ongoing track record, and one that, as Hilton Foundation President Peter Laugharn reminds us, means that if icddr,b can do all this with its limited resources, “none of us has an excuse.”
Laugharn’s message resonates in a room full of bold-faced names from the world of development — perhaps a more worthy parallel world compared to the celebrity-laden galas usually held here. Sir Fazle Abed, BRAC’s founder and a member of the prize jury, is leaning his forearm on his cane and rapt as the subsequent panel begins. Ann Veneman, UNICEF’s former chief and another jury member, is there. Laureates of the prize are in attendance too, among them Path’s Steve Davis and Landesa’s Tim Hanstad.
The foundation — which forgoes the typical gala awards ceremony in favor of a symposium — brought the prize back to Los Angeles, its headquarters town, after two decades away. So the day began with a kind of paean to multiculturalism by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who reminisced of childhood trips to Burma and Rwanda. For a roomful of NGO leaders gathered from all over the world, it was magic.
Garcetti noted that Los Angeles is not just the most diverse city in the world today; he claims it’s the most diverse in human history. And the famed spiritualist and medical doctor Deepak Chopra, not to be outdone, began his remarks by discussing the state of humanity 20,000 years ago. He provided, as Laugharn later noted, a “species perspective” — one which compels us to decide how we’ll respond to existential challenges such as climate change.
There were fascinating discussions onstage and off. Jaha Dukureh — who was applauded onstage for convincing the government in Gambia to outlaw female genital cutting — told me offstage how she did it: borrowing a car, she tailed the Gambian president around the country for days until he finally agreed to meet her so she, an indomitable woman who had experienced this cultural practice herself, could press her case. It worked.
I myself was part of a panel discussion on storytelling, which tried to make sense of the rapidly changing media environment (I made the case for the enduring value of traditional shoe-leather journalism). But perhaps the most important story was the simple image of wealthy and influential people — many with the last name “Hilton” on their lapel badge — coming together without pomp or circumstance to quietly celebrate those saving lives as far away as Bangladesh. In an uncertain time so dominated by another, far glitzier hotelier family, it was a reminder of what matters and what’s possible.
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