George Stephanopoulos and Ali Wentworth Nominate VHW for the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize

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The Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize is the world’s largest annual humanitarian award and is presented to nonprofit organizations who have made extraordinary contributions toward alleviating human suffering. This year, we were honored that my friends George Stephanopoulos and Ali Wentworth nominated Village Health Works. We were so moved by their beautifully written nomination, that we asked if I could share it with friends such as you.

Thank you Ali and George!

Dear Hilton Humanitarian Prize Jury: 

Over the last three decades, I have been privileged to have a front row seat for some of the most consequential stories in history: elections, wars, global struggles, and vast humanitarian crises. Nevertheless, the story of Village Health Works and the accomplishments of my friend Deogratias ‘Deo’ Niyizonkiza and his team in rural Burundi - the poorest country on Earth - stands out as among the most inspiring.

With a deep sense of admiration for all that Deo and his team has accomplished - and the firm idea that their example can serve as a model for human development in some of the most challenging places on Earth - I am writing to nominate Village Health Works for the 2020 Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize.

Village Health Works has achieved remarkable success in alleviating suffering in the world’s poorest nation while building an innovative model for a better future and our shared humanity. It is my strong belief that Village Health Works embodies both the spirit of the Prize and the work of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

In this small nation in eastern Africa, millions of people are struggling in every facet of human development. More than 80 percent of Burundians earn less than two dollars a day. Malnutrition afflicts 58 percent of Burundian children, and more than half of the population is chronically food insecure. With a median age of just 17, Burundi also has some of the lowest education outcomes in the world. Access to healthcare is scarce; one out of every 23 Burundian women will die during pregnancy in their lifetime. The country has the lowest GDP per capita out of any nation in the world.

Yet despite the challenges, Village Health Works has successfully changed this narrative of poverty and despair to one of hope and opportunity. An ongoing project of incredible transformation has for years been improving healthcare, education, and infrastructure for rural Burundians with an innovative, cohesive, and community-based model that changes lives on a daily basis.

The way I came to know about Burundi and the work of Village Health Works is a deeply personal story. It began one day at my daughter’s school two years ago when a man with the name Deogratias Niyizonkiza came to speak to her and her classmates about reconciliation and holding out the hand of kindness to former enemies. 

Deo is perhaps best known for his journey from war-torn Burundi to the United States, a story told by Pulitzer-Prize winning author Tracy Kidder in his NY Times bestseller Strength in What Remains. Deo was born and attended grade school in rural Burundi, and was a promising medical student in the capital city of Bujumbura when civil war erupted. Surviving genocidal persecution and almost unimaginable terrors, he was able to escape from Burundi and make his way to New York City - only within a year to find himself homeless, and at times hopeless. Through a series of miracles and acts of kindness, he ultimately enrolled in and graduated from Columbia University and the Harvard School of Public Health. At Harvard, he met Dr. Paul Farmer and became an invaluable resource for clinical efforts at Partners In Health. When the organization launched its project in Rwanda in 2005, Deo spent several months working there and played an integral role in building communication and trust within the rural community. That same year, Deo visited Burundi for the first time since fleeing to the United States. He found an overwhelming number of Burundians who had lost everything in the war, and who had no access to the physical and mental health care they desperately needed. In late 2006 Deo sat down with community leaders in the small village of Kigutu where he grew up to find ways of removing barriers to dignity and progress through the creation of a model health care system. Working together towards this end, they established Village Health Works

As he told the students, Kigutu was a village with very limited opportunity in 2006. Community members received care from local “healers” who lacked formal training in medicine and proper hygiene precautions, or they traveled three hours to Bujumbura to receive care that they could not afford. Community members felt deep pain and grief, having experienced the worst side of humanity in the horrors of the war. Some also felt the guilt of survival. When Deo sat down with them in Kigutu, he heard weary words of pessimism. 

Yet those words did not stop him. While those early conversations were not easy, they laid the groundwork for programs that were designed and built by local leaders. Deo’s words inspired our daughter and in turn, my wife Ali Wentworth. Our family became supporters of Village Health Works, and my wife and daughter visited rural Burundi in July 2018 to see their work close up. We have been honored to be contributors to Village Health Works, and to introduce others to its work. In doing so, we know we are joining prominent donors like the Gates Foundation and other major philanthropies who understand the opportunities in its transformative model for development in rural Sub-Saharan Africa.

 We have seen how Village Health Works has created a new story of hope in the world’s poorest country over the last decade. Every day on a hilltop oasis in rural Kigutu, VHW is providing healthcare, creating infrastructure, teaching children, and building a model for change that is potentially a big “stone in the pond” for human development in Africa. These ripples and waves are the teachers trained and students provided with nutrition, and the support for farming and livestock co-ops, and community cooperative programs that create economic opportunities and provide the tools to escape extreme poverty. They come from a health clinic open 24 hours a day serving a population of 200,000 people - including 45,000 consultations per year, over 1,400 women receiving prenatal care, over 500 children treated for malnutrition, over 1,500 patients treated for malaria, over 6,000 screenings for HIV/AIDS, and over 6,000 people transported via ambulance from the community to the clinic. Our family believes that working together, health and education bring hope - and create a model for lasting change. They are central to the Village Health Works model.

Even as thousands receive help now, a big part of Village Health Works’s current efforts are investments in a more impactful future. The Kigutu Hospital and Women’s Health Pavilion, currently under construction, will provide essential and emergency obstetrics and surgical care, with a special focus on the health needs of women and children. The technically advanced facility now taking shape will be a 150-bed, 85,000 square foot teaching hospital that will transform the availability of advanced medical services throughout Burundi. And next year, Village Health Works will welcome the first students to the Kigutu International Academy, a boarding school for grades 9-12 currently in advanced stages of planning. This builds on VHW’s vibrant education work, including a preschool program for 3-5 year olds, access to a daily nutritious meal, integration of health care services, a girls’ empowerment program, regular parent and community engagement efforts, and more. These major projects take shape on VHW’s beautiful campus in the lush mountains above Lake Tanganyika, a place of transformation and accomplishment. 

As a journalist, I know that measurable achievements are often vital in telling the big story. Here are some that provide insight into what Village Health Works has accomplished.

Nearly 250,000 consultations since its founding have led to significant reductions in health outcomes such as child mortality and malnutrition, compared to national averages.

A robust network of Community Health Workers made over 78,000 visits to households in 2018 alone.

The passing rate for the national 9th grade school exam is now 94% - compared to 0% every single year before Village Health works became involved in 2015. 

Every year for 13 years, an average of over 10,000 volunteers - 5% of every man, woman, and child in their service area - have helped build, repair, maintain the physical locations that make up Village Health Works. Many of those helping to build the first clinic and the road leading to it, and who later worked to maintain that road, were former enemies who found the first stages of reconciliation and peace in working together to help their shared community. These dedicated volunteers also worked to build and establish the micro-hydroelectric power plant that provides the core of the electricity required for the campus, as well as supporting an array of community engagement activities. 

As their ambitions have grown, so has their ability to make those ambitions reality - they have raised $40 million since their founding, growing every year.

These are challenging times for those of us who believe that human development and philanthropic leadership can still be two of the most powerful “exports” of the United States in service of a better future. I can think of no greater investment in that ideal than a major commitment to the work of Village Health Works in the world’s poorest nation. If we cannot find the will to act there, where the need is greatest and the despair the deepest, then where can we act? More importantly, if we can succeed there, where the challenge of alleviating human suffering is greatest, there is no place where we can fail.

With great pleasure, I’m honored to nominate Village Health Works for the 2020 Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize and to support that nomination fully. With respect and appreciation for all the Foundation does, I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

George Stephanopoulos