Taking up his appointment to the board of GAVI, 43-year-old Abbas Gullet, Secretary General of the Kenya Red Cross for the past 19 months, says one of his biggest challenges will be in defining the role of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in eradicating vaccine-preventable diseases and establishing and strengthening public-private partnerships.
The GAVI board is composed of 15 members on two year rotational posts, representing UN agencies, governments, the World Bank and various organisations involved in vaccination and immunization issues. A public-private partnership created in 1999, GAVI focuses on improving access to vaccines and vaccination services in poor countries. Strategic objectives identified by the GAVI board include improving access to sustainable immunization services, expanding the use of all existing, safe and cost-effective vaccines, supporting accelerated disease control targets for vaccine-preventable diseases, the development and introduction of new vaccines and technologies, especially for developing countries and to make immunization coverage a centrepiece of international development efforts.
GAVI also oversees the operation of the Global Vaccine Fund which has received more than one billion US$ from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other donors. The Fund provides vaccines and support to the 74 poorest countries to improve health systems and introduce new or under-utilised vaccines, such as Hepatitis B.
"At the moment, funds from GAVI are mostly channelled through health ministries. What we need to do is establish NGOs as credible partners of governments so that some of the money can be re-channelled through them and reach local communities," Gullet says.
He wants to build on the experience and successes so far of his predecessor from the Children's Vaccine Program at PATH - the first NGO voice on the GAVI board.
"There is no question that we need to have the voice of the NGOs on the board. What we need to do is make all of our differences and diversities a strength and not a weakness," he adds.
Gullet says he will be touching base with NGOs working in the vaccinization and immunization field to understand their individual concerns and working to achieve a common ground on issues that can be addressed by the board.
"It will be a challenge to work out how to maximise this two year period so that we make a difference in reducing the number of lives lost to infectious diseases. Social mobilisation is key to raising awareness on vaccines among communities and here, the Red Cross and Red Crescent has an important role to play. The experience gained and the lessons learnt from a measles campaign in Kenya and Uganda, for example, can be useful," he says. Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, he adds, can also be used to liaise with national NGOs and work with them to develop individual country plans on vaccine-preventable diseases. Individual Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and International Federation staff in the 74 countries GAVI is targeting, can also be used as an entry point for ad hoc groups and national committees, Gullet suggests. "With our network of grassroot volunteers, the Red Cross and Red Crescent can also make a huge difference."
Gullet knows what he is talking about. He joined the Kenya Red Cross in 1973 at the tender age of 13 on a first aid course in his home town of Mombasa, before spending the next 11 years as a volunteer in charge of youth and first aid training. He then continued as a paid employee for Kenya Red Cross on youth, first aid and relief programmes before working for the International Federation and the Henry Dunant Institute on a global youth study. Youth programmes and issues remained his focus until he took up a mission for the International Federation in Malawi. It was the first in a long series of international assignments. Sudan,Geneva,the Great Lakes, where the International Federation ran a programme to help more than two million refugees, and Fiji, where he was head of the International Federation's regional delegation, were just some of his postings.
He returned to his home country to take up his current position as secretary general of the Kenya Red Cross. A challenge awaited him in addressing governance, management and integrity issues and re-establishing the Kenya Red Cross' credibility at home - something he has been successful in doing.
His selection to the GAVI board to represent the NGO voice "came as a good surprise." Partnership is the key word he says.
"Here in Africa you will find that we - the Red Cross - but not only us - are true grass root organisations. I think that in this partnership we are that added value that is fundamental in reaching the masses if GAVI is to be successful."