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Leadership interview with Dr Awa Marie Coll-Seck

Dr Awa Marie Coll-Seck reflects on her tenure as Executive Director of the Roll Back Malaria Partnership.

[RBM leadership interview conducted by Laura Newman, Senior Communication Associate, Malaria Control and Evaluation Partnership in Africa (PATH), February 2011]

Dr Awa Marie Coll-Seck
Photo by Dr Marina Gavrioushkina, RBM Secretariat

After eight years of outstanding leadership, Dr Awa Marie Coll-Seck is stepping down as Executive Director of the Roll Back Malaria (RBM) Partnership this month. As the global spokesperson for RBM, Dr Coll-Seck has been unwavering in her passion and commitment to fighting malaria. Her vision, leadership, and energy have helped mobilize the global malaria community, guiding the implementation of the Global Malaria Action Plan, effectively meeting new challenges, and making dramatic progress towards RBM's ultimate goal of a world free from the burden of malaria.

Dr Coll-Seck is also a professor of infectious diseases, a global health expert, and has authored over 150 scientific publications. Prior to joining RBM, she served as Senegal's Minister of Health (2001–2003) and was Director at the Joint United Nations Programme for HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) (1996–2001).

Q: What was it like to make the transition from working as Director of UNAIDS to Executive Director of the RBM Partnership?

At UNAIDS, I held a position that involved mobilizing and coordinating the UN response to HIV. I then became Minister of Health in Senegal, which required that I lead national and international partners in achieving results. Both of these experiences prepared me well for the RBM position, where my role as the Executive Director was to convene and coordinate a wide range of actors from both the public and private sectors. The transition was exciting. I enjoyed the additional challenges and responsibilities that came with leading the RBM Partnership.

Q: What do you find to be some of the most compelling parts of your job as RBM Executive Director?

I find many tasks compelling: like travelling all over the world, speaking to journalists, and working with a broad range of people. But I'd say the latter is one of the most enjoyable and rewarding parts of my job. Gathering representatives from private companies, research institutions, non-governmental and multilateral organizations, funds and foundations, and governments to brainstorm, coordinate work, and agree on shared goals has led to some thought-provoking discussions, often leading to great ideas and exciting new initiatives.

Q: When you look back at nearly eight years of working with the RBM Partnership, what are the accomplishments you are most proud of?

I feel most proud about the fact that the RBM Partnership brought new momentum to the response to a disease that was once fragmented and floundering. Indeed, better coordination and consensus increased donor confidence; stronger advocacy initiatives raised public awareness of malaria and the money started to flow towards malaria control, which translated into rapid results on the ground. I'm also proud about the fact that RBM has proven to be a very adaptable and performance-oriented partnership. RBM's success in raising malaria's profile as an exemplary investment opportunity has been recognized by the UN Secretary General Mr. Ban Ki-moon, the members of the African Leaders Malaria Alliance, The Lancet, The Economist, and many other public figures and opinion leaders.

Q: What challenges have most interested - or frustrated - you over the years?

The challenges that frustrated me most are those that initially seemed intractable, like the insufficiency of overall funding for malaria control, procurement and supply chain bottlenecks in countries, and the difficulties in making artemisinin-based combination therapies affordable and available. But these challenges were also the most interesting! The RBM Partnership facilitated ground-breaking projects to respond to these problems. I'm thinking for example about SMS for Life, a "public-private" initiative that harnesses everyday technology to eliminate drug stock-outs; the Affordable Medicines Facility for malaria, an innovative financing pilot project intended to expand access to affordable and effective antimalarial medicines; and malaria bonds, a financing instrument that the Partnership is currently examining as a possible solution to reduce the financing gap for malaria control. That the Partnership collectively nurtured many initiatives shows the enormous potential inherent in a functional and focused global health partnership.

Q: Has being a woman and mother given you a unique perspective in the fight against malaria?

I have experienced malaria not just as a woman and mother but also as a medical professional and a Minister of Health in a malaria-endemic country. I remember, as a child, my little brother became infected with malaria. My mother recognized his convulsions as a sign of severe malaria and took him directly to hospital where he was treated and saved. Other children were not as lucky. As a doctor, I was faced with incredibly high numbers of out-patients with malaria, and many young children died in my arms. As a Minister of Health, malaria ate up 40 percent of my health budget. Without a doubt, my personal and professional experiences have sparked and fuelled my commitment to the fight against this devastating disease.

Q: How do you relax when you are not at the office or traveling for work?

Spending time with family and friends, reading good books and watching films, and even a bit of politics on the side!

Q: Who are some of the most interesting people you have met during your work for RBM?

I have met so many fascinating individuals from all walks of life: presidents, ministers, actors, singers, politicians, journalists but also the courageous and inspired individuals who are struggling daily with this disease: the mothers and fathers who travel long kilometers to get their feverish children to health clinics, the medical professionals and other health workers who provide life-saving services to their communities, and the global and country-level partners who support endemic country governments in achieving their goals. Closer to home, my RBM colleagues are a wonderful and demanding crew and I will miss them.

Q: What advice would you give the next Executive Director in facing the opportunities and challenges that the next eight years will present?

I am certain the next Executive Director will have all the leadership qualities necessary to do a great job! But I found that a useful guiding principle for me was to be true to myself and my values—while at the same time listening carefully to all the ideas and concerns of those actively engaged in the fight. Whenever I felt in doubt about anything, I got clarity by keeping focused on our goal of preventing illness and saving lives. The people suffering from malaria must be at the center of all our efforts.

Q: What job would you do next, if you could do anything?

I am leaving the Roll Back Malaria Partnership and the World Health Organization, but I will not stop working! Once back in Senegal I will focus on improving leadership, transparency, and promoting good governance in my country and see what opportunities exist to support these principles across Africa.