By: Tony Best
It’s a treasure trove of human development indicators that you notice first. They tell a positive story about the changing face of Africa.
Infant mortality rates, although high by rich nations standards, have fallen by at least 20 per cent in some places in recent years while life spans that once stood at a dismal 40-45 years in the 1980s and ‘90s have broken the 52 year threshold, reaching almost 60 years in many countries. In sub-Sahara Africa, the regional average for children who have lived past their first birthday has fallen, for instance, from 109 deaths for every 1,000 live births in 1990 to 81 last year.
“We have seen considerable progress in Africa in areas of health,” said an UNICEF official the other day. “People are living longer, more children are in school and like many parts of the developing world, Africa’s per capita incomes have jumped and the aging population continues to expand.”
Little wonder, then, that a international publication which had labeled Africa “the hopeless continent” at the turn of the 21st century, painted a much difference picture last year telling the world “Africa rising,” no questions asked.
Jay Ireland, President and chief executive officer of GE in Africa, couldn’t agree more.
“The progress is clear as Africa and the rest of the world move towards the United Nations Millennium Goals,” he said while on a visit to Washington D.C. “We are working alongside several countries to help them improve maternal health conditions and boost child survival rates. Our efforts are wrapped around such things as having safe births and within the first 24 hours making sure that the babies are taken care of and live through and beyond the most challenging period of their young lives.”
By “we” Ireland, who was appointed to his top executive position in Africa in March last year, was referring of course to GE. Specifically, he was pinpointing the involvement of the GE Foundation in Africa’s development programs, all geared to raising the health profile of nations that range from Angola, Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa to Senegal, Zambia, Mozambique and Tanzania.
“The Foundation whose program is called “Developing Health Globally” has established an important presence in 10 African states,” Ireland said. “It works with hospitals, governments and various health care institutions to help boost the delivery of effective health care. The Foundation goes in and outfits hospitals with basic equipment, an operating suite here, patient monitors there, beds and things like that. We would go into district hospitals, especially those institutions in rural areas, donate equipment, help with the training of staff and otherwise helping them to bring their level of care up to speed.”
In the seven years since the program was launched in 2005, the GE Foundation has donated $66 million, not simply in equipment and training but in water purification and electricity facilities that extend the scope of services and improve the standard of living.
The strategy was straightforward enough. For pregnant mothers who faced life threatening emergencies during child-birth and who would be forced to travel, three even five hours to the nearest well-equipped hospital in an urban center could easily turn to a district health center for the kind of care that would ensure a safe delivery at the hands of a qualified health professional and save the lives of mother and child.
These initiatives and the impact have earned African governments and the GE Foundation a healthy report card and an “A” for results.
“What we were able to do with the regional hospitals was to build them up so that the mortality rates could be decreased and the level of care so increased in rural districts that people wouldn’t be forced to travel to a more urban area for vital services,” was the way Ireland put it. “We are talking about a situation in which a mother may have to travel to a hospital, a trip which shouldn’t take more than a half hour, depending on the road conditions, but can end up requiring three or four hours, especially when it comes to child-birth and delivery. If the mother is having a problem with child birth and the regional hospital couldn’t handle it the concept of transporting the mother who is in immediate labor three to four hours to a larger, central and better equipped hospital became almost zero. Actually, that problem contributed to a large number of deaths.
“What we said was let’s go in and build up these district hospitals and as we install the power generation, the water purification units and the other basic equipment doctors would be able to provide life-saving surgeries,” he added. “After all, without energy they couldn't have a hospital operating theater.”
Ireland was quick to point out that the water and electrical facilities didn’t simply serve the hospitals but villages and other communities “for miles around.” In essence, what was established for health gets a whole community going.
“We also sent fourth year medical students of color to complete rotations in GE hospitals in Africa,” he said. “They work closely with top flight medical personnel in Africa and when they go to Africa these people of color, most of them of African descent bridge the relationship between African-Americans and Africans in the Diaspora.”
That’s not all.
“We also have an initiative called ‘Healthymagination’ and we have funded efforts in Tanzania, Nigeria and Ghana,” the GE President in Africa explained. “In Tanzania we have donated portable hand-held ultra-sound units to mid-wives so they can basically triage mothers who need to go to a birthing center for care.”
Interestingly, it introduces sophisticated equipment to a more traditional form of medicine: midwives who deliver babies.
“Mid-wives are used extensively in Africa and the provision of ultra-sound units has worked out well,” Ireland added. “What’s really an issue in Africa is an adequate supply of trained doctors and nurses. There are so many African doctors and nurses here in the U.S. and Europe but aren’t in their home countries. Anything we can do to get more training and capability further out into the villages and district would be more beneficial to the Millennium Development Goals. So it has been a big invest for us, one to which we are firmly committed.”
He traced the origins of GE’s corporate health initiatives in Africa to the erection of two main pillars: the building of a meaningful relationship on the continent and a desire to make friends. Some call it excellent corporate citizenship.
“In going into Africa we decided to make friends before we start to try to make money,” he insisted.
Caption 1: GE executives led by Nigeria CEO Lazarus Angbazo with
ministers of the Federal Government of Nigeria led by the Nigerian
Minister of Finance Ngozi Okonjo Iweala at the signing ceremony of the
GE/ Nigeria MOU.
Caption 2: President and CEO of GE Transportation, Lorenzo Simonelli infront of a GE lomotovice
Caption 3: GE Transportation stand at the 2011 Africa Rail Show