I drove to the dog park every day when my border collie was young, passing by a nondescript building with this logo on it. Like Charlie Bucket in Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book, I wondered what went on inside the mysterious industrial building near my house. Finally I got the brilliant idea of googling it, and discovered that the building housed something more wonderful than Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
Willy Wonka gives children wonder and joy; PATH gives children life. PATH is a global health nonprofit quietly based in Seattle. For the last forty years, PATH has looked at barriers to public health around the world and developed simple, effective solutions. Starting with the then-novel concept of public-private partnerships to improve access to contraception, PATH has expanded its mission to help poor nations develop robust public health systems, to eliminate malaria, and to reduce preventable neo-natal mortality around the world.
Last week, I was invited to PATH’s annual breakfast fundraiser, where I had a chance to talk to people who work on some of these projects. Talking to these people, I learned about the Window of Opportunity Project – a five-year initiative that focuses on improving the health and development of children during the first 1,000 days (the period between conception and a child’s second birthday when mortality is highest and small changes can have lifelong health impacts).
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I learned about their program to teach small groups of women in Uttar Pradesh about childhood vaccines, who then act as catalysts in their communities. I learned about breast-milk banking programs in regions where AIDS orphans are common. I learned about a simple tool based on local midwives’ practices that stops hemorrhaging after childbirth. I learned about a vaccine for malaria, currently in development and 50% effective. I learned about a simple delivery system for magnesium sulfate that can stop preeclampsia.
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During the breakfast, we heard from speakers about PATH’s commitment to health solutions that serve women and children because they are disproportionately affected by poverty and poor health care. We heard from Gugu Xaba , who started as a community health nurse in South Africa nearly 30 years ago and now leads the Window of Opportunity project that has helped to reduce childbirth deaths in one district by 65%.
International aid and international development programs are fraught with ethical dilemmas and they can often do more harm than good. Seattle is known as the land of process, and examples abound of ineffectual projects that never get off the ground as stakeholders attempt to reach consensus. But Seattle-based NGO PATH has proved smart people working together can make substantial, measurable, improvements all over the world. In fact, as I left the conference center that day, I realized that PATH has proved the only thing lacking in the face of the world’s insurmountable problems is the will to solve them.