Emmanuel d’Harcourt, Chief Program & Innovation Officer at Helen Keller International

February 10, 2021


Emmanuel d’Harcout, Member of the French-American Foundation’s Transatlantic Forum

Q. You are a pediatrician and public health expert with over 20 years of international experience. Since 2019, you have been the Chief Program and Innovation Officer at Helen Keller International, a global health organization that aims to accelerate its impact on healthcare for the most vulnerable communities. Can you describe your responsibilities and why you decided to work for this organization?

My main responsibility as Chief Program and Innovation Officer is to make sure that we are doing things right—and that we are doing the right things. This might seem like a top down job; but, done right, it’s the opposite. One of my favorite aspects of the job is learning about creative solutions our staff in the field have developed, so that we can disseminate successful innovations to peers across the world. For example, these days I am working with our team in Senegal to help evaluate the impact of a new approach to treating malnutrition they’ve put in place. Initial data suggests that they have more than tripled the number of children being treated, with great results in terms of cure. We’re working with the government to document this scientifically, with an eye to using the same approach in other West African countries hard hit by the economic and nutritional consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I chose to work for Helen Keller International for several reasons. One of those is its scientific approach to public health. Another is that it works in close collaboration with governments and communities, which is how I think public health works best. On a personal note, I really like my colleagues, several of which I knew long before we were colleagues at Helen Keller.

Q. You worked for almost two decades at International Rescue Committee (IRC). Can you tell us more about your role(s), your proudest achievements, and your greatest challenges during those years?

At the IRC I worked in three roles: first in managing a child survival program in Rwanda; then in developing the IRC’s global child health programs; and, for the last eights years, as the head of global health programs. From a results perspective, what I am proudest of for the work in Rwanda is establishing a child health program that became incorporated into government services, that continues to this day, and that was cited in a scientific review as a major contributor to Rwanda’s steep decline in child mortality. For the child health program, my proudest result is setting up a community health program that has provided over six million treatments for malaria and other diseases in over ten countries, and that also grew to national scale in several of these countries. My proudest result as health director was helping to lead the IRC’s response to the Ebola epidemic. I went to Liberia myself within a few days of the scale of the disaster becoming clear, and this experience pushed me to steer the organization – and hopefully influence others – towards greater collaboration with, and listening to, affected villages.

In all of these positions, however, probably the most lasting legacy are the people I worked with. Many have remained friends, and I’ve had the satisfaction of seeing them continue to grow as public health practitioners and leaders. The mentoring has been mutual: these colleagues have had a profound influence on me, particularly those who challenged my assumptions.

There were many challenges during those years, but probably the hardest was seeing first-hand, in countries such as Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sierra Leone, the cruelty that people can inflict on each other. One searing memory is sitting next to a friend, who lost nearly her entire family during the genocide in Rwanda, as she was recounting those events, staring into space, and saying, “how can people do this? I just can’t understand.” I’ve thought about that question a lot, talked to many people, and read books; but still don’t have much of an answer.

Q. You began your career in international development as a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal and you lived and worked in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, focusing on child and maternal health, conflict recovery, data and health systems. What are the biggest improvements you have seen since the beginning of your career in those areas?

Overall, there is much more awareness of the problem of child mortality, and greater investment. We’ve also seen substantial progress in the treatments available, including new combination treatments for malaria, zinc treatment for diarrhea, and ready-to-use foods that make treating malnutrition easier. This combination of improvements have led to a decline in more than half in the number of preventable child deaths over the last thirty years. This means millions of children are now alive who would have otherwise died.

Q. What are the most pressing issues in 2021 that you would like to underscore as a public health expert?

Can I list ten instead? If I had to chose one, however, I would say the single greatest threat to public health in the world today is inequality. We may think, sitting in New York or Paris, that the fact that a child in Niger can’t access basic health treatment, or that his mother can’t get contraception, or that the entire family can’t get clean water, is a regrettable but distant problem. In fact, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, disease anywhere is a threat to health everywhere. The COVID pandemic is just the latest reminder that, in very tangible ways, health inequalities pose a direct threat to all.

Q. You are a dual French and American national. You are also a member of the French-American Foundation’s Transatlantic Forum. What do you enjoy most about the program?

I’ve enjoyed learning, in an informal setting, from knowledgeable people on a wide variety of topics, including some that are new to me. I’ve also appreciated getting to know interesting, diverse, and dynamic people. And of course I enjoy the atmosphere, so familiar to me, of mixed French and American culture, but also the additional mix of Belgian, Kazakhstani, and beyond. It’s the perfect antidote to the prevailing hypernationalism. I also want to mention that, as someone who’s worked a lot in nutrition, I find the meals at Maman healthy, and delicious.

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