The Conversation, with Her Excellency Toyin Ojora Saraki, WHO Foundation Ambassador for Global Health
In our blog series, “The Conversation”, we discuss how we can co-create agile and impactful interventions for a healthier world.
Meet Her Excellency Toyin Ojora Saraki, our WHO Foundation Ambassador for Global Health and a highly esteemed global advocate with decades of work dedicated to women’s and children’s health and empowerment, ending gender-based violence, and improving lives in sub-Saharan Africa. She shared her insight on equity, emergency response, and the future of global health.
Why was it important for you to join forces with the WHO Foundation?
I am delighted to be the World Health Organization Foundation’s Inaugural Global Health Ambassador. This is a natural progression of the blossoming collaboration between my advocacy, philanthropy, and our intrinsic synergies in relation to fighting the many challenges faced in global health.
The WHO Foundation has been created to mobilize new resources and partnerships to support the mission of the World Health Organization. The Foundation is truly unique in the world of global health. As Founder-President of The Wellbeing Foundation Africa (WBFA) I am an advocate and philanthropist for maternal, newborn, child, and adolescent health, as well as socio-economic empowerment.
I believe it is important to join forces with WHO Foundation, as our values and work are interconnected. Together, we can be a driving force for good in the global health ecosystem and create catalytic change to overcome today’s most pressing global health challenges.
I look forward to working with the Foundation to propel the world’s most influential global health initiatives forward, and hope my energy and deep commitment to educating, advocating, and fundraising on behalf of WHO Foundation’s mission will make a vast difference.
What impact does she hope to have in her new role as WHO Foundation Ambassador for Global Health?
Global health needs us all, from every country, to work as one. We must all dedicate ourselves to keeping the world safe, and advocate for the protection of the most vulnerable. By working together, we can change the lives of future generations.
As the WHO Foundation’s Inaugural Ambassador for Global Health, and Special Advisor, Independent Advisory Group, WHO Africa Regional Office, I aim to raise awareness and tackle the particular challenges Africa and Nigeria face in global health situations by using my experience and network to mobilize a key opportunity for private sector leadership and resource procurement.
The collaborative approach adopted by WHO Foundation as an established independent grant-making organization allows for a collaborative approach that recognizes the importance of complementing governmental support with contributions, financial and otherwise, from the private sector, industry, and members of the public.
We have set out to protect the health and well-being of everyone, in every part of the world, and I am honored to reiterate my commitment to the development, growth, and mission of the WHO Foundation, and to support the World Health Organization (WHO) and the global health community.
In light of the various global emergencies including the crisis in Ukraine or the COVID-19 pandemic, what lessons can you share from your 20-year experience as a global health advocate in Africa?
Throughout my 20-year experience as a global health advocate in Africa, I have seen many infectious diseases alter our global health ecosystems, yet nothing as prevalent and widespread as COVID-19.
Response, recovery, and resilience are the most prominent and influential methods of ending this pandemic and ensuring we are primed for the next. Pandemic preparedness and our collective reaction are necessary global public health goods, as virus resurgences are always a threat, especially when the global response and mobilization are insufficient and inequitable.
In the same breath, the same principles must apply when it comes to emergency responses. The escalating crisis in Ukraine requires urgent funding and it can only be facilitated by collective and agile effort.
Through my experience, I have seen first-hand the dynamic impact improving and positively developing healthcare systems as a whole can have. Health is already quite fragile in low-income countries, and a crisis can engulf them whole, taking resources and attention away from the many other pressing and life-threatening issues faced by developing nations.
Through the cooperation of high-income countries in sharing funds, spreading knowledge of solutions, and promoting best practices, we can create resilient health systems, therefore improving health security. From service delivery to medical products, we need accessible and smooth functioning interactions, all of which can be achieved in parallel with Universal Health Care (UHC).
UHC is an essential element of a strong health system and will allow us to avoid disruptions in other critical healthcare, such as maternal and child health, or NCDs when global health crises arise. That is why I and my Wellbeing Foundation Africa are committed to supporting the World Health Organization Foundation in reaching SDG target 3.8, so all people can have affordable and equitable access to needed health services.
How did you first come across the work of the World Health Organization?
I visited the World Health Assembly in 2004, accompanying the then First Lady HE Stella Obasanjo, and realized the vital importance of WHO as a normative agency.
Committed to improving the health of mothers, children, and families in Nigeria and the Africa Region, I resolved to work towards the standards set by the WHO – I was then invited to become the first Nigeria country member of the WHO Partnership for Maternal Newborn and Child Health, to whom my Wellbeing Foundation Africa was granted Board Observer status since 2012.
We continue to deepen collaboration with the WHO on WASH, NTDs, NCDs, RMNCAH+N, the Midwifery and Nursing Profession, Frontline Healthworkers, and Universal Health Coverage.
I also deeply value serving the WHO Africa Region as a member and special adviser, WHO AFRO Independent Advisory Group.
What do you think will be long-lasting global changes because of the pandemic?
We know one of the most important ways we are going to move away from the pandemic is making sure that everyone, everywhere has access to safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines. We need to be able to produce, distribute and administer these vaccines globally in an equitable, orderly, and efficient manner.
It has been a shame to see the disparity in economic resources making vaccines an unfair playing field. The “me first” approach has left the poorest at higher risk – ultimately prolonging the pandemic as well as a large portion of the world’s population needs to be immune to the virus to defeat COVID-19.
The pandemic, paired now with very low vaccination rates, has had a significant impact on Nigeria and the Africa region. In particular, the economic consequences within Nigeria and the African region have presented serious challenges. Certain regions of Africa are already quite vulnerable, and pandemic exacerbated difficulties low-income countries already experience, such as poverty, food insecurity, a lack of healthcare access, and gender disparity.
A weakened economy and suffering population, combined with the accelerated and magnified significant challenges supply chains face globally; we will see it take many years for countries, especially the developing nations, to navigate and overcome such disruption.
When building back better, we must address these gaps head-on, beginning with vaccine equity. Our global community is highly interconnected, we need greater international cooperation and coordination to keep the world safe, end this pandemic and confront the long-lasting global challenges.
In Africa, what strategic role should philanthropy play in emergency and natural disaster situations to reach the most vulnerable communities?
Each action my Wellbeing Foundation Africa takes during an emergency or natural disaster situation to reach the most vulnerable is based on strategy and policy. We aim to reach as many marginalized communities as possible, and extensively plan proactively to do so.
Preparation is key; we often know in advance through history and our current breakthroughs and conversations in science that there will always be health-related emergencies and natural disaster situations. By creating a crisis plan embedded in readiness, responsiveness, and resources we can enhance the impact and reach.
WBFA also actively seeks out local and international partners to collaborate and unify common goals and key actors across many sectors. Together we are able to undertake the immediate response needed to avert emergency situations while planning for the long-term, as supporting and participating in the initial aftermath is just as crucial as producing opportunities and tools for vulnerable communities to heal.
I encourage every philanthropy to record their strategy and outcomes, alongside their successes and challenges to add to a knowledge bank that can be shared with all, as lessons learned can generate systemic change.
What actions and mechanisms have been most effective on the ground?
My Wellbeing Foundation Africa has always taken a community-based practice approach, making us a trusted grassroots organization that has significantly contributed to the reduction of human suffering and the development of the most marginalized. Our actions and mechanisms work on both a national and global civil society realm, allowing us to lobby for human rights while implementing on the ground projects and education to serve the interests of the most vulnerable.
An example of how a community-first approach is best, is as the first cases of COVID-19 were being recorded by the Federal Ministry of Health in Nigeria, my Wellbeing Foundation Africa was able to have our programs safely continue, with our midwives committing to delivering uninterrupted community midwifery services, and being a dependable source for COVID-19 information and practices.
Our frontline staff and midwives continued to support all the expectant and newly delivered mothers, their newborns and families in person when necessary and through online information and knowledge sessions. We endorsed and advocated the World Health Organization recommendation that every pregnant woman should have unfettered access to quality and safe maternity care and support, as an essential medical service.
We widened the scope and coverage of our key WASH instructional assets for infection prevention and control in conjunction with our Global Handwashing Partnership commitments to schools and health care facilities. Through launching a new and targeted global mission, to Teach Clean hygiene and promote Safe Surface Science, with our partners at the London School of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, we saw great success. We commissioned and installed handwashing stations at participating MamaCare clinics reaching approximately 8,000 women monthly.
Our timely and practical investments met women, children, and healthcare practitioners directly at their point of need in their communities allowing us to be extremely effective on the ground.
Why is it important to power the work of the WHO and the Triple Billion targets?
It is extremely important to power the work of the WHO and the Triple Billion targets which are an ambitious initiative to improve the health of billions by 2023. The Triple Billion targets function both as a measurement and a policy strategy, integral to the WHO GPW13’s Results Framework, and aligned with the SDGs. The targets will not only save potentially 29 million lives but also reduce country burden in data collection and streamline efforts to accelerate progress towards achieving key global targets.
This measurable impact will transform the future of public health, with:
- 1 billion more people benefitting from universal health coverage
- 1 billion more people better protected from health emergencies
- 1 billion more people enjoying better health and well-being
I am proud to support the Triple Billion targets as they contain a tangible number, a number that will impact humanity, and drive change through the goals set, progress tracked, and problem-solving needed. By sharing the learning and best practices, we will never leave anyone behind again, allowing us to deliver the needed impact in the developing world.
By 1 billion more people benefitting from universal health coverage, we will demand systemic change which will directly tackle disparity in healthcare access, bringing a productive shift in making UHC accessible and affordable to all.
By 1 billion more people better protected from health emergencies, we will influence emergency preparedness, prevention, detection, and response, helping countries to build their reactive capacities and assessments of public health events.
By 1 billion more people enjoying better health and well-being, we widened the narrative on what health is – as it extends and is not limited to clean air and water, safe roads, child nutrition, and domestic violence. There is a range of indicators that impact good health and they all must be improved.
Through powering the work of the WHO and the Triple Billion Targets, we can keep our world safe, serve the most vulnerable and attain the highest standard of health, for all.
How would you encourage other global leaders to get involved and active in the fight against health inequity?
Humans are connected, and what happens in one country can impact the everyday lives, social fabrics, and economies of countries far away. This connectivity holds power, and we need all global leaders to get involved and be active in the fight against health inequity to keep our world safe and create a balanced development dialogue.
Every party needs to be present and engaged at an equal table that is based on mutual respect and understanding. By doing so, we can create a platform for learning exchange and celebrate, demonstrate and mobilize the possibility of a united global health approach and workforce.
Our global health infrastructure is fragmented by bias and inequity, we need to act immediately to tackle the deep-seated inequality and mend the divided global health world. Global leaders need to urgently come together and take responsibility and accountability by altering their current approach and advocating for solidarity.
We need cooperative and inclusive forward-thinking which leaves no country behind. Our global health security depends on this, and I hope this will be realized before it is too late.
To get involved and partner with the WHO Foundation, please learn more on our website.
If you’d also like to support the WHO Foundation Health Emergency Appeal for Ukraine, please donate.