For the first time, an African organization has won the Gates Award for Global Health. The one million dollar prize is presented each year by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The recipient of the 2005 Gates Award is the Nairobi-based African Medical and Research Foundation, or AMREF. Dr. Michael Smalley, AMFREF’s Director-General, accepted the award in Washington, DC.
"We’re absolutely thrilled. We’re thrilled as we are the first African organization to receive the award, and particularly so in the Year of Africa. It’s appropriate that an Africa organization should be recognized in the year that the world is focusing on Africa. So, we’re pleased about that and, of course, we’re pleased for all of the communities across the continent with whom we work," he says.
In its early days, AMREF was perhaps best known for its “Flying Doctors” service. Dr. Smalley says the organization has grown a great deal since then.
"We’re almost 50 years old. And when we started the Flying Doctors really was a hundred percent of AMREF. Now, it’s 15 percent or so of the organization. So, we continue to provide surgical services to remote hospitals, over a hundred of them across the east Africa region, but the majority of our work is working with communities," he says.
Dr. Miriam Were, chairperson of the African Medical and Research Foundation, says the organization’s work in communities is viewed as a partnership.
She says, "The challenge of working with the communities is of course listening to the people, because the tendency is to go out there and tell people what to do. And because people are poor and people are in need, they will tend to listen to you and so on, but they don’t necessarily internalize what people say. The importance of working with communities is that you will discuss with them in a mutually respectful approach to finding out what the concerns of the people are and how they would like them to be addressed."
Dr. Were says women are the most active members of the community-based programs.
"Many times the men are working outside the community. They have gone for jobs so they are outside. And secondly, because a lot of the issues that hurt us so much in Africa are issues of children and women. And so long as there are issues of children there are mostly women who carry that burden," she says.
AMREF runs a broad range of health projects in eastern and southern Africa, with HIV/AIDS, malaria and reproductive health among their main concerns.
Dr. Smalley says the one million dollars from the Gates Award for Global Health will be put to good use.
"One of the reasons why we are so excited about receiving this award is because the money itself is going to give us an opportunity to understand why so many communities do not receive the health care that they need. There are policy issues, there are practice issues. It will enable us to understand those issues and then find solutions," he says."
Bill and Melinda Gates established the award five years ago, saying they wanted to “draw attention to heroes and success stories in the global health field.”