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Leadership Interview: "A Thousand Days Left"

Interview with Mr. Raymond G. Chambers, the first United Nations Special Envoy for Malaria

[RBM leadership interview conducted by Katya Halil, Communications Officer, Roll Back Malaria Partnership Secretariat, May 2008]

Q: You have a long history as a philanthropist. What led you to take on malaria as your cause?

Raymond G. Chambers: About two years ago I saw a photograph of children sleeping in a room and I remarked to Jeffrey Sachs how cute they were and he said, "you don't understand, they're all in malaria comas", and they all subsequently died. I will never get that image out of my mind. I learned that those deaths, and tens of millions of others deaths, could have been prevented with a simple ten-dollar insecticide-treated mosquito net and the availability of medication, so I decided I was going to do whatever I could do to help end deaths by malaria as quickly as possible.

That's when we started Malaria No More to try and raise awareness, raise the funding, and help bring together all of the wonderful organizations working to end malaria using some business techniques and strategic planning tools to make sure everyone was focused on one goal and one plan together. I must say I'm very pleased with the progress that's been made in the last year and a half.

We've seen a great deal of increased awareness and interest, and a recognition that this is one of the top killers of children under five in the world. The White House recognized it by having a White House summit on malaria; last year the most popular television show in America, American Idol did an 'Idol Gives Back' segment focused on malaria and AIDS, and they did it again on April 9th of this year; we're seeing more and more funding being set aside by multilateral organizations and by donor countries; and there is a major bill pending in the US Congress that would set aside five billion dollars for malaria over the next five years. More and more young children are getting covered with bed nets and we're seeing a rapid decline in deaths in countries like Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Kenya. These are highlights explaining why I'm pleased with the progress.

Q: What do you hope to achieve as the first UN Special Envoy for Malaria? How will you measure your success?

Raymond G Chambers: I think to continue to raise awareness, to call attention to the problem, and to encourage collaboration. We're hoping to reinforce the goal set by the Roll Back Malaria Partnership by the end of 2010, and we're actually increasing our aspirations to step up funding and processes and cover everybody who's at risk by the end of 2010.

Measuring success is fairly easy. It's not subjective; it's very objective. We have 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa at risk for malaria. It's likely that 1 to 3 million children have died this year, and what we really want to do, what I would like to do, is to get to the point where we can end those deaths. The Secretary General has charged me with eliminating as many deaths as quickly as possible.

Q: Why do you think the UN Secretary General chose to appoint a new UN Special Envoy for Malaria in 2008?

Raymond G. Chambers: Well, I know so many of the people interested in malaria had been asking him for more than a year to appoint a Special Envoy and I think that as the awareness of the fatalities from malaria became greater all around the United Nations, and whenever the Secretary General went to Africa--which he's done quiet a few times just in the last six months--he saw the devastation wrought by the disease. After getting together with the Director General of the World Health Organization, he concluded that now was the time to appoint a Special Envoy. I'm especially grateful and honored that he chose me.

Q: What significance do you attribute to the creation of this new position?

Raymond G. Chambers: I think the creation of this new position will help to further unite and bring together more coalitions of existing groups and health ministries towards coming up with one plan, one timetable and one method of funding the ending of deaths from malaria. I’d also to incorporate into that the longer term goal of eradication that is likely to come from a vaccine or the shrinking of borders that Dr Richard Feachem is working on, but for now our quest is to eliminate as many deaths as quickly as possible.

Q: What needs to happen now so that Roll Back Malaria targets can be reached by 2010 (100% coverage of at-risk populations with anti-malaria commodities)?

Raymond G. Chambers: That gives us a thousand days. We have to get all of our people working in the fields in cooperation with the local ministries of health; we've got to work with the manufacturers of the commodities for things like bed nets and medication and get them to have a schedule of delivery; we've got to accelerate some of the funding so that we can meet the requirements of the manufacturers of the commodities; and we've got to get everybody to buy into one plan. We've also got to ensure that plan is most effectively implemented and executed.

Q: How might individuals contribute to the fight against malaria?

Raymond G. Chambers: With all of my philanthropic experience, the malaria opportunity is the easiest to understand and perhaps the most compelling of all asks: 10 dollars buys a bednet and saves a child's life. I have never seen anyone or heard anyone refuse to help or respond to that simple ask.

Q: How will the office of the UN Special Envoy work with the RBM Partnership and its Secretariat?

Raymond G. Chambers: The RBM Partnership is the Partnership; it is the umbrella partnership; it's the nucleus partnership, where everyone interested in the field of malaria can come together, be heard, and participate. Because of its uniqueness, I asked Dr Awa Coll-Seck to treat the office of the Special UN Envoy as an extension of the RBM Partnership Secretariat in a bilateral way so that we can be working back and forth to help one another. Also as we raise more resources, the plan has to be the plan of the RBM partnership that we are raising resources for.