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Refugees and displacement

Helene Gayle on how to lead organizations that respond to crisis

The public sector needs to learn to work with the private sector, from an epidemiologist who became the CEO of one of the world's largest charities

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Chief Innovation Officer, International Rescue Committee
Director of Innovation Strategy, International Rescue Committee

The international development sector is losing relevance and humanitarian organizations should look to the private sector to adapt, says Helene Gayle, the CEO of the Chicago Community Trust, a $2.7 billion philanthropic fund.

Gayle has been at the forefront of the sector for close to four decades. Her career has spanned senior leadership in health, international development and humanitarian response. Fresh out of medical school in 1984, she joined the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where she spent 20 years directing the government response to the ballooning HIV/AIDS crisis during its nascency. In 2001, she became director of HIV, TB and Reproductive Health at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; then, from 2005-2015, radically reshaped the mission and trajectory of one of world’s preeminent international humanitarian organizations as the CEO of CARE International. In 2015, she became the CEO of the McKinsey Social Initiative before joining the Chicago Community Trust last year.

Gayle’s diagnosis is apt: Even as government budgets for international aid and development have grown, the relative level of aid spending among the 30 largest donors has fallen from a high of 0.5% of gross national income to roughly 0.3% today, a trend largely driven by stagnant levels of U.S. assistance. Those in the sector say this reflects that overseas assistance has become a lower priority for the United States.

“We had a huge foreign aid heyday, where governments were incredibly committed to foreign assistance, and we are starting to see that commitment shrink,” Gayle told Displaced hosts Ravi and Grant. “At the same time, we're seeing more and more private sector, and particularly multinational corporations, understanding that their economic well-being is also tied to their social engagement and their ability to be good citizens and create social value in communities in which they work around the world. I think that's that's been a positive trend.”

Gayle is known within the public sector for her ability to establish partnerships, both with the private sector and with governments -- even those reluctant to accept clear evidence. That served her well dealing with uncompromising world leaders during the peak of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 90s.

When Gayle began her career as an epidemic intelligence officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1984, there were fewer than 20,000 documented AIDS cases globally. By 1990, the National Institute of Health estimated that close to one million people were infected with AIDS, and 8-10 million people were living with HIV worldwide. The horror and fear caused by the disease’s rapid spread have potent parallels to responses to today’s refugee crisis, Gayle said: Both have generated xenophobia and defeatism, but also catalyzed advocacy and movements for social acceptance.

I believe development and change happens in more integrated ways than just taking one sector at a time.

“When it came to HIV, one of the things that was so critical there...was having people who are involved themselves being on the front lines. If it hadn't been for AIDS activists, we would not have gotten to where we are today,” Gayle said. But, she added, “The thing that I find different between that era and...the refugee crisis…[is] those activists were citizens of the state...they could apply pressure to government because there was a sense of accountability. Whereas refugees...have no political rights and are in a much trickier situation in terms of the strategies that they can draw on for advocacy and the voices that they can articulate.”

In this conversation, we survey Gayle’s long and distinguished career, touching on how she grew up meeting members of the Black Panther Party at her father’s barbershop, why she turned down $45 million a year in government funding as the CEO of Care International, and how her work at the Chicago Community Trust is changing her perspective on development.  

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Related reading

Shifting sands: the changing landscape for international NGOs -- The Guardian, Tim Smedley

The Denialists -- The New Yorker, Michael Specter

How, and How Not, to Stop AIDS in Africa -- The New York Review of Books, William Easterley

You Can Stop Gun Violence The Same Way You Stop AIDS or TB -- NPR, Amy Costello

The media loves the Gates Foundation. These experts are more skeptical. -- Vox, Julia Belluz

Rethinking Why to Prioritize Girls’ Education -- The Huffington Post, Kathryn Moeller


Interested in learning more about what went behind this episode? Check out Airbel’s Medium.

Opinions and views expressed by guests are their own and do not reflect those of the International Rescue Committee.