The Nation-builder series is a category of articles that focuses on ordinary citizens who felt pained by a problem and then committed their lives to doing something about it. The objective is to showcase, through these examples, the qualities that enabled these people succeed.
As we admire these people, it is hoped that we too will adopt the qualities and lifestyle they exhibited. In doing so, we too will not only identify our area of particular pain but we will also commit our lives to doing something to solve the problem.
The feature for this series is a man called William H. Foege. He is acknowledged as the person who devised a global strategy that led to the eradication of smallpox in the late 1970s. He also played a key role in ensuring significant increase in immunisation rates in developing countries (including Nigeria) in the 1980s.
William Foege was born in Decorah, Iowa, USA on March 12, 1936. He received a B.A. from Pacific Lutheran University in 1957 and completed medical school at the University of Washington, receiving his M.D. in 1961.
From 1962-1964, he participated in the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) of the Communicable Disease Centre (CDC). He was appointed director of the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention in 1977. In 1984, Dr Foege co-founded the Task Force for Child Survival, a working group for WHO, UNICEF, The World Bank, UNDP, and the Rockefeller Foundation.
Dr Foege served The Carter Center between 1986-1992 as its Executive Director, Fellow for Health Policy and Executive Director of Global 2000. Between 1999 and 2001, Dr Foege served as Senior Medical Advisor for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Dr William H. Foege is Emeritus Presidential Distinguished Professor of International Health, Emory University, and a Gates Fellow.
What are the nation-building lessons from the life of William Foege?
Responsibility for a global problem: Epidemics such as smallpox and river blindness were killing thousands of people in third world countries. Dr Foege accepted responsibility for this health challenge even though neither he nor his country was affected.
We have many challenges facing us as a nation, some directly affecting us and others indirectly. It is only when we’ve accepted responsibility for the challenge that we become ready to do something about it. Accepting responsibility is taking ownership.
Made huge sacrifices: Because of his acceptance of responsibility, Dr Foege left the comfort of his home and country immediately after completing his Master’s degree in 1965 to volunteer as a doctor at the Lutheran Hospital, Yahe, Cross River State. This career move was hugely sacrificial because it was to an underdeveloped village with no basic amenities, no adequate tools to work with and no financial gain for him.
His desire to solve a global health problem compelled him to make this and future sacrifices.
Influences early in life: Two main inspirations in his life were his uncle who was a Lutheran missionary to New Guinea and his childhood hero, Dr Albert Schweitzer, who went to Africa to treat the poor (he read Albert Schweitzer’s autobiography, ‘The Primeval Forest ‘, as a boy). Based on these influences, he desired, as a teenager, to study medicine and use it as a tool to help the underprivileged.
To build Nigeria, it is critical for us to choose personalities whose models can aid our own efforts. Also, we must also be proactive to mentor the younger generation to inspire them to undertake nation-building initiatives.
Implemented innovative solutions: In 1966, through William Foege’s innovative approach, a smallpox outbreak was contained in Eastern Nigeria and this was achieved without sufficient vaccines and medical personnel. He saved millions of lives and later took this experience to India where he saved millions of lives also, still with limited resources.
He was later called upon by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to help increase global immunisation rates. Again, his innovative model enabled a rise in immunisation rates against the six basic diseases from 20% to 80% in the developing world. James Grant, then director of UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, called the effort “the largest peacetime mobilization in the history of the earth.”
Like Foege, ordinary Nigerians can initiate and sustain significant change when they convert their desire for change into innovative solutions.
He was evangelistic with single focus: Like any other nation-builder, William Foege was known for one thing – leading the fight against basic killer diseases. As a result, he created organisations to lead this crusade, he wrote several books and journals on the issue, spoke about it on any platform and to any audience he had, he worked with corporations and leading Foundations (such as the Gates Foundation) to research and implement solutions.
Despite the success in eradicating smallpox, William Foege still focused on eradicating diseases such as measles, polio, tetanus and whopping cough. In his late 70s now, he is still single-focused on this mission.
If we are going to build Nigeria, we are going to need citizens with evangelistic fervour and with a single focus. Such citizens will make great impact and reproduce themselves in others.
Man of faith: William Foege is always keen to highlight that his faith is the key motivating factor for what he has achieved and still seeking to achieve. His faith compelled him to give his life to create a world where children can be protected from killer diseases.
Nigeria needs to see citizens who sacrificially commit their lives to solving a national challenge because their faith compels them to.
Legacy: Today, when we talk about the eradication of smallpox, we talk about William H. Foege – an ordinary citizen whose faith compelled him to make huge sacrifices that saved millions of lives. To him, the legacy is not the numerous awards (including a Presidential Medal of Freedom) but the saving of lives because that was and still remains his core objective.
In our search for a developed Nigeria, we must define what our core objectives are, because that will define our legacy. We need legacies that will build and sustain a developed Nigeria.
William Foege is an ordinary American citizen and as far as he is concerned, he has done ordinary things. This tells us that ordinary citizens with deep desire for change can lead that change through inspiration from their faith, acceptance of responsibility, making sacrifices, implementing innovative solutions and inspiring many others to be change agents.
We are not waiting for a leader but waiting for us to get up and lead the change in the area we are most passionate or pained about. Would you get involved in nation-building?