May 19, 2024

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How Agnes Binagwaho and Paul Farmer worked together until they founded University of Global Health Equity-Rwanda

It has been productive three years of growth that still continues.

By Ange de la Victoire DUSABEMUNGU

Three years ago, President Paul Kagame of the Republic of Rwanda officially opened the University of Global Health Equity, Butaro Campus in Burera District in the Northern Province

The University of Global Health Equity-Rwanda, a trophy-deserving university is a health sciences university in Rwanda that mainly focuses on global Public Health concerns. An initiative of Partners In Health, UGHE is a private, not-for-profit, accredited institution.

Since the University began its operations in Rwanda, many have been wondering about where the idea of creating such an institution came from.

While you may be one of the few who knows where it came from, there are some people who can’t believe the masterminds behind the establishment of this Health Institution have struggled to make the idea a reality.

It is well-known that in rural areas all over Rwanda when they hear someone being called a “Doctor” they interpret it hand in hand with the meaning of Doctor as a Medic and as a Wealthy person.

It is possible that the creation of UGHE Rwanda was based on neither the fact that the founders had doctorate degrees nor the appetite of generating financial revenues rather was the way to find a solution to health challenges that many vulnerable Rwandans were facing.

Prof. Binagwaho and Paul farmer speaking about restoring global solidarity on the road to pandemic recovery

During the conversation on restoring global solidarity on the road to pandemic recovery which hosted Dr. Paul Farmer and Prof. Agnes Binagwaho as Co-founders on January 26, 2022, Prof. Agnes Binagwaho explained how they decided to work together to address the medical crisis that has been annoying Rwanda, especially the time when HIV / AIDS prevalence was so high.

On the other hand, the experience of the founders of UGHE has also been useful because if it was not the case to have experience in public Health, this idea would not have probably come into reality.

Prof. Agnes Binagwaho explained how she went to New York for the first time in a meeting where she met a variety of experts but none of them she knew at the time.

During the meeting in New York, the panel of health experts continued to discuss the issues on the agenda, but in fact Prof. Agnes Binagwaho felt that what they were saying had nothing to do with the major issues that had concerned her because she was expecting from them the solution to the plight of the lives of Rwandans who were at risk of illness at the time.

“…I feel it was my first time traveling to New York, by the way, New York was not looking like I knew in the movies and I was supposed to join a high-level team reflecting on the MDGs. I have to acknowledge that I didn’t really know what it meant at that time” she says.

“And when I entered that room, there were a lot of people that I didn’t know. And a lot of really …., messy people that were telling us how to treat HIV, what we should do, etc. However, many of them were very big advisors in entities that decide who live and who die because they were advisors of the Global Fund,” narrates Prof. Binagwaho.

 “And here in Rwanda, at that time, we had 800 people on treatment. And we were really going across the world to find an opportunity for treatment. And I was so shocked, because I told them if I do what you advise me to do in my country, people will die more, and this guy called Prof. Farmer was in the corner of the room, as annoyed as I was.” She added.

“And so, I sat near him and when he was opening his mouth, he was saying things that made sense. So that’s how we met.” Prof. Binagwaho revealed.

On his turn, Dr. Paul Farmer explains that at that time Prof. Binagwaho proved to not really be a simple woman.

“…the other thing I learned on that first day was that Agnes (Prof. Agnes Binagwaho) was not shy about reminding people why what they were saying was goofy or worse.” Dr. Paul Farmer said.

“…. we became friends very quickly. And I knew really from setting foot in this play in this country and really working with Agnes, I wanted to work with her and I wanted to work for her.” Dr. Farmer noted.

Paul Kagame and Paul Farmer opening Butaro Campus

The two worked together for a couple of years before starting thinking about creating an official institution where they can transfer the knowledge to future leaders.

“We decided to train young people how to manage the health sector because we were lucky to have art, to write, to study what we were doing and to put principle behind that in intensive night discussion.

“You don’t understand how many times we rebuilt the world in those hills of Rwanda. We started by training a short course of two weeks for all the leaders of the health sector: 60 People in the ministry, directors, Director of hospital etc. And the impact was performed on mission, vision, coordination, decentralization, access to care, focus on the vulnerable, etc.” Prof. Binagwaho said.

READ ALSO: Rwanda: UGHE Master Graduates urged to stand for Health Equity, and speak for voiceless

“It was easier to give real education to people than in a class in Boston, because we were talking about what is outside the door of the class. We had a discussion with each and every one we were talking about. The mayors came, the Minister of State was coming discussing policies, protocol, practice, all the chain of services and we decided that now it was time to go to the next step, and create a true institution that will give this opportunity globally, and continue to be a global platform for discussion.” She tells the audience who were following the conversation physically at Butaro Campus and virtually.

Since then, Prof. Agnes Binagwaho and Paul Farmer outlined a plan to create a university that can provide solutions to public health.

READ ALSO: Prof. Binagwaho, others stress the need for solidarity and respect in the South-South Cooperation

I was lucky at Harvard to have a boss who said, yeah, you want to go work on the health system in rural Rwanda? Go ahead.” Farmer said.

“But the tasks that we were given first by her (Prof. Agnes Binagwaho), were that there were 30 districts in Rwanda and four of them had no district hospital at all. So, we were sent to three of those four districts to either build or rebuild the hospital.” He added.

View of Butaro Campus

“The last district was the district of Burera where we’re sitting now. And I know for a fact that Agnes never saw this place, and was delighted because we went here together the same day, …. And we got to the end of the road, in this beautiful mountain. And we looked around and she said, this is it, you know, you build the hospital here. These are ministry hospitals, of course, and we’ll fulfill our shared dream of being able to launch a university focused very specifically on global health equity.”

Prof. Agnes Binagwaho intervened saying that what is important is to understand that they were really complementary and supposed to provide quality care in an equitable way.

“So, the word equity was shared and it is in Rwandan policies.” Explains Binagwaho.

Prof. Agnes Bimagwaho is the Vice Chancellor and co-founder of the University of Global Health Equity. A pediatrician by training, Prof. Binagwaho served as Rwanda’s Minister of Health from 2011 to 2016. She held previous positions with the Rwandan health service as permanent secretary of the Ministry of Health and executive secretary of Rwanda’s National AIDS Control Commission.

Paul Farmer, the co-founder and chief strategist of Partners in Health, which provides direct health care services and leads research on global health issues in many places around the world. Dr. Farmer is Chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, as well as a professor of medicine and chief of the Division of Global Health Equity at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Farmer graduated from Duke in 1982 and has served as a Duke University Trustee, as well as a member of the board of advisors for the Duke Global Health Institute. 

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