In 2001, the Imbuto Foundation was originally established as the Protection and Care of Families against HIV/AIDS (PACFA) as a project under the Office of the First Lady of Rwanda to mobilize the resources needed in the fight against HIV/AIDS. IHP’s Director, Sandy Thurman, was asked to deliver the opening remarks for Tenth Anniversary celebration in Rwanda and to introduce her friend and The First Lady of Rwanda, Her Excellency Mrs. Jeannette Kagame.
In her remarks, Ms. Thurman marveled at the unparalleled progress that the Imbuto Foundation and Rwanda have made over the last decade:
“I could have never imagined in my wildest dreams that the country I first visited in the late 1990s would so quickly rise from the ashes to become the vibrant country that is today in just a few short years. Much like the Phoenix, the bird in ancient mythology that, when burned to death, rises from the ashes in beautiful colors to live again. In fact, the Phoenix is the symbol of my own home town, Atlanta, GA, which in American history was burned to the ground in our own civil war. Like Rwanda, with visionary leadership Atlanta rebuilt to become one of the most vibrant cities in the United States. I must admit, however, that it took us a lot longer!
I am here today as a firsthand witness to the leadership and vision provided by the First Lady and her incredible team (many of whom are here and have gone on to hold other positions in government and public service) and their unwavering commitment to providing state of the art healthcare and education to all people in Rwanda, particularly women and girls who were disproportionately impacted by both the violence of the genocide and the AIDS epidemic. Their fundamental belief that investing in a well-educated and healthy Rwanda as a cornerstone for building a stable and prosperous Rwanda is a great lesson for leaders worldwide to follow.
While I was working at the White House for President Clinton, I was approached by the Rwandan Ambassador to the U.S. in 1998/1999 to consider the impact of the AIDS epidemic on Rwanda in the aftermath of the genocide. At that time, Rwanda had less than one million dollars per year in its AIDS budget and the U.S. was spending about 300 million per year in its Global AIDS budget (currently 5 billion per year). My, how far we have come! Rwanda was not on a single target list of African countries heavily impacted by the AIDS epidemic. However, the Ambassador’s case for Rwanda was so compelling that I committed to visit to Rwanda on the spot. When I arrived a few months later, I was totally unprepared for the leve lof leadership and commitment that was in place here, the opportunities that abounded, or the challenges Rwanda faced moving forward. What was most striking, however, was the sheer determination of everyone I met that Rwanda could and would meet the challenges and forge ahead. I left the country thinking to myself, “Who are these people and where did leadership like this come from?” Of course, I still ask myself the same question. Rwanda, with all its challenges, has been truly blessed with some outstanding and very energetic leaders!
Just one visit to Rwanda, and I was hooked! In fact, in 2001 and 2002 I spent more nights in Rwanda than in my home town of Atlanta. I collaborated with the First Lady’s Office on the establishment of the Protection and Care of Families against HIV/AIDS (PACFA); talked about Rwanda to everyone I knew, and began bringing other colleagues from governmentand NGOs to visit. Of course, they were hooked, too! At one point, I was even chided by the Dean of the African Diplomatic Corps in the U.S., the Ambassador from Djibouti, when he told me, “Now Sandra, please remember that Rwanda is not the ONLY country in Africa.” I guess my bias toward Rwanda did not go unnoticed!” So, when conversations began to expand the programs to prevent the transmission of HIV from mother to child in Rwanda began, I was surprised to get pushback from the First Lady and the now Honorable Health Minister. They simply said, “we can’t just prevent mother to child transmission without treating the mothers, and we can’t treat mothers without treating the other children . . . and we can’t treat them all and leave out the fathers!” At the time, this flew in the face of the common wisdom of the AIDS community who were all saying we could prevent mother to child transmission with nevarapine for $4 a dose. Of course, that was never actually true. But, when the AIDS establishment was using the low cost of this intervention as a selling point to funders, including the U.S. Congress, you can image what the reaction was when the First Lady and Dr. Agnes said, “that is simply NOT good enough.” Of course, it should have been no surprise to those of you who know them that they were NOT going to settle for anything but a comprehensive approach. Instead, they countered with a package of services for the entire family, and the Family Package program was born. Compromising, when the health of families was at risk, was just not an option in Rwanda. They were right, and I am happy to the report that the fundamentals of the Family Package are now employed as part of a comprehensive approach to HIV prevention, care, and treatment worldwide.
Over the years, the Foundation has grown to include new programs and initiatives and expanded its scope of work; however, from the very beginning, the Foundation team and Madame Kagame clearly understood that AIDS is not just a health issue, and that if we did not address all the underlying cofactors that promote the spread of the disease — education, economic empowerment, gender equity, violence, and others, we would never be able to stem the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Let me share a few of the lessons from theImbuto Foundation that are exemplars for others organizations to follow:
There must be A Clear Vision: Imbuto’s vision is a nation of empowered and dignified Rwandans. There is so much emphasis put on empowerment, and it is important, but a successful band of thieves can feel empowered. Dignity, the quality or state ofbeing worthy, honored, or esteemed, on the other hand, is often overlooked and underappreciated both individually and collectively and is critical to the long-term viability of healthy individuals, families, communities, and nations. It speaks not only how we feel about ourselves, but how we feel about, view, and engage with others.
You have to have Defined Mission: Imbuto’s mission is to support the development of a healthy, educated, and prosperous society. Understanding that prosperity is not defined by wealth alone, but also includes health, happiness, and the well-being of all people.
A successful program is always built on Solid Values: The core values of Imbuto are Excellence, Integrity, Solidarity and Commitment — for our values are what we deem worthy enough to invest in and fight for.
And you must have a sound Strategy: Imbuto’s work is aligned with national priorities and fulfills the mission through advocacy, community outreach, mentorship, parternships, and unleashing young talent. Of all the gifts I have admired in Imbuto, and in Rwanda in general, is a keen understanding of the importance of a good plan, for it defines the HOW of how goals and objective are achieved. Many of the best programs and ideas in the world are not successful because of a lack of a strategic plan. Fortunately, I have not seen that happen in Imbuto or Rwanda. Now, that is a talent and discipline the whole world needs more of![Closing] with a few more reflections on the success of Imbuto and the leadership of Madame Kagame and her team throughout the last decade:
These are attributes that set Rwanda far ahead of the pack:
There is a popular saying in the U.S. that, “Can’t never could.” I am not sure if you have heard of it. There were many who thought Rwanda would never achieve what you have in HIV/AIDS and on many other fronts, for that matter. But, not once have I ever heard anyone from Imbuto say, “we can’t.” In fact, I haven’t ever seen Madame Kagame or Minister Binagwahotake take “no” for an answer. And, as a result, you proved all the nay sayers wrong!
While others talk about the empowerment ofwomen and girls and gender equity…it is mostly just talk….with very fewexceptions. Rwanda walks the walk on the gender front….from the President tothe First Lady to the Cabinet and the Parliament. This is reflected not only instatistics but in the day to day working relationships from the ExecutiveOffice down to the community. I have experienced it firsthand. It is a veryrare and wonderful thing to see….and should be modeled in every country in the world.
In my thirty years of working in HIV/AIDS, government, academia, and NGOs, the work of the First Lady and her colleagues at Imbuto is unmatched in the level of passion, practicality, and pragmatism they bring to every task, every presentation, and every proposal. Madame Kagame, Honorable Minister, ladies and gentlemen of Imbuto, and Your Excellency, your commitment to excellence personally, professionally, and on behalf of all the people of Rwanda continues to be an inspiration to me and so many others around the globe. Truly, Rwanda and the world owe you a great debt of gratitude. Again, congratulations and keep up the good work!”