February 27, 2021

Off the Shelf: Of Management and Mosquito Nets

But it’s in the realm of charity, and especially in international aid, where these methods are really succeeding beyond the confines of the corporation, as Alex Perry, chief African correspondent at Time magazine, demonstrates convincingly in “Lifeblood: How to Change the World One Dead Mosquito at a Time” (PublicAffairs, $25.99).

This little gem of a book heartens the reader by showing how eagerly an array of American billionaires, including Bill Gates and the New Jersey investor Ray Chambers (the book’s protagonist), are using concepts of efficient management to improve the rest of the world. “Lifeblood” nominally chronicles the global effort to eradicate malaria, but it is really about changes that Mr. Chambers, Mr. Gates and others are bringing to the chronically mismanaged system of foreign aid, especially in Africa.

Much has been written about how the Wall Street boom of the 1980s and the Internet mania of the 1990s made certain American investors extremely rich. Less has been written about how some of them, inspired in part by Mr. Gates, have used that wealth to improve conditions in the third world. Total private foreign aid from Americans, Mr. Perry writes, reached $37.3 billion in 2008, or “$10 billion more than the U.S. government sent overseas.”

The new philanthropists have realized, however, that money alone wasn’t helping. Much foreign aid can simply be stolen by corrupt third-world bureaucrats, — a chronic problem that the aid world, from the United Nations to nongovernmental organizations, seemed unable to resolve.

Enter Mr. Chambers. Having made his fortune pioneering leveraged buyouts in the 1980s — he and William E. Simon, the former Treasury secretary, completed an early whopper of a deal for Gibson Greetings — Mr. Chambers grew disenchanted with Wall Street and, during the ’90s, threw himself into efforts to improve the city of Newark. The city, while still struggling today, would probably be far worse off if not for his work.

He gave millions, it was true, but his genius was in building what Mr. Perry calls “the Newark triangle,” that is, uniting political leadership, business leadership and the media to confront the city’s ills. “Everything Ray went on to do in malaria,” an aide says, “was built on what he did in Newark.”

When Mr. Chambers, searching for a new challenge, discovered the antimalaria movement about five years ago, he found an effort in disarray. Few Americans appreciate how devastating malaria is to the third world. AIDS gets more press, but malaria — and, to a lesser extent, tuberculosis — have also killed huge numbers of Africans and crippled development efforts. As a result of DDT, mosquito-borne malaria was all but eliminated by the 1960s, but then complacency set in, and the disease came back stronger than ever.

Clearly, malaria is far easier to combat than, say, AIDS. Rates can be cut at least in half by something as simple as handing out pesticide-laden nets for people to place over their beds. In the late 1990s, Exxon Mobil, which has vast operations in Africa, became the first major company to announce widespread efforts to combat the disease, after finding that it was devastating the productivity of the company’s workers.

Malaria’s “defeatability” made the disease an attractive opponent for the Bush administration and scores of charities. Too many, in fact. When Mr. Chambers came along, he found them working at cross-purposes, throwing money (that all too often disappeared) at third-world governments.

Mr. Perry tells the story of how Mr. Chambers united the diverse efforts, brought in the White House to hold antimalaria conferences and then rallied the media. The most important media effort came from, of all sources, “American Idol,” whose “Idol Gives Back” specials did wonders to raise money and awareness.

“Ray approaches social issues like a C.E.O. approaches a company,” one aide tells Mr. Perry. “He breaks it down into supply chains, investment decisions, sales and marketing, accountancy.” Mr. Chambers was so effective that he was named a United Nations special envoy for malaria eradication. He set a goal: to eliminate malaria by 2015. Then he hired a small team of corporate and aid veterans to buy and distribute millions of mosquito nets to the seven African countries hit hardest by the disease.

It’s hard to say which was tougher: herding thousands of bureaucrats toward a single goal or getting all those nets into the hands of so many of the poor, especially in remote areas of Congo, Nigeria and what is now South Sudan. Though the campaign did not meet its every goal, it proved astoundingly successful. Nearly 300 million nets were distributed. Where the nets were used, malaria rates fell like a stone.

At 229 pages — including notes — “Lifeblood” is more like an oversized magazine article. But it has an important story to tell, and Mr. Perry tells it with precision and gusto. The book opens and closes with a visit to Apac, a Ugandan village at the heart of “the most malarious place on earth,” as Mr. Perry calls it. Before the Chambers-led drive, Apac was a ghost town, and the only residents on its streets, the book says, were three naked, staggering “zombies” suffering from malarial brain damage.

Afterward, well, let us just say the transformation is as dramatic as anything you will read in fiction.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=d9cd439e90ecdb1a53fb6b1ef83b3fd4

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