From Rwanda to the Gates Foundation, the story of PhD Alumnus, Paulin Basinga

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Seattle , WA
United States
Washington US

I am Paulin Basinga. I grew up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) even though I was a Rwandan citizen. My  parents had to flee Rwanda so we lived in exile for many years. Unfortunately, I lost both of my parents while living in the DRC.

I returned to Rwanda in 1994, very shortly after the genocide. I was 19 years old and very keen to continue my studies. Not being Congolese, I could not earn a scholarship to attend university in the DRC, so I returned to Rwanda. It was October 1994, and the country was still devastated – but fortunately – the President had stationed troops to protect Rwanda’s only university during the war.  So the school was able to reopen within five months of peace and I was one of the first batch of students to enroll.

Finding the Payson Center in Rwanda

My mother had wanted me to be a doctor, and so did I. I studied six years of general medicine and finished in 2001. I was recruited by the pediatric department of the University teaching hospital in Butare. I wanted to be a pediatrician, but there were no opportunities to intern at that time. Then, in 2002, Bill Bertrand and Nancy Mock of Tulane University came with funding from USAID to partner with the government of Rwanda to open the first school of public health. They were very interested in recruiting young medical doctors, statisticians and social scientists to form the first faculty members of the school. It was a very competitive process and I was lucky to be selected to participate in the first cohort.  

The scholarship included one month of English immersion in Nairobi (my first real training in English) – and then to rotate every six months between classes at the Payson Center of Tulane and six months back in Rwanda’s School of Public Health, applying what we had learned. There were ten of us in this first cohort, and six of us completed the program in six years (I graduated with an M.S. in 2006 and Ph.D. in 2009). 

I was taking 13-15 credits a semester – it was very intense! But there was so much to do back home – we were eager to apply our classroom assignments to our work in the field. Most of my statistics homework  data came from the work I was doing for the Ministry of Health of Rwanda – and the results of my analysis while in school went immediately into application as Rwanda was forming its new national health policy.

The Payson Center Advantage

Being a medical doctor can give you a very narrow view, as you are focused on the single patient. A public health official looks at overall population health – but the Payson Center approach is very eye-opening.  It gives you an understanding of the broader development context of health through economics, politics, agriculture, etc.  It helps you to really understand the relationship between a healthy human being and development in a more comprehensive way. This is what led me to help the Government of Rwanda develop and strengthen its performance-based financing program, the community health worker program and other programs. It was a wonderful opportunity to translate my research into action, studying incentive structures and cooperatives to provide more sustainable, well-informed community health support for Rwandans. At Payson, what really stands out is the diversity of topics and the liberty that the student has to direct their own education - you can really build a degree that best suits your needs and interests. I took all the interesting courses at the Department of International Health and Development of the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, and had access to economics and other disciplines courses; and had the privilege of working closely with Dr. Anastasia Gage who chaired my PhD committee.

I worked for the National University of Rwanda for 11 years – and it has been the most rewarding job in my life thus far because I got to see Rwanda’s national health system develop from its earliest stage and saw the students I trained both at the school of medicine and public health move to occupy one of the highest positions in the Ministry of Health. We worked very closely with the Ministry of Health – bringing rigor and analytical thinking to their policy development. And I was able to grow personally from a simple department member to the Deputy Director in charge of Research at the School of Public Health, a position that allowed me to work with many international donors, as well as teach and nurture the next batch of young students coming up through the school. Additionally, I served for many years as a technical adviser to the Tulane University Rwanda Office and supported several of their programs there.

Gates Foundation Recruitment

Eventually, I wanted to learn more about global development and potentially apply my Rwandan experience to other African countries. I had worked with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation during some earlier studies, and one day they called to recruit me for their HIV Team. It was a privilege for me to be able to come and work for this great institution.

The program I am especially passionate about at the Foundation has been the formation of Integrated Delivery – my new team. For a while, the Foundation has been known to operate as a vertical organization, with each program team implementing its own strategy in a silo. There was never a clear mandate to look horizontally for synergies between teams, especially for delivery-related issues. But now Bill and Melinda are very interested in understanding the role of primary health care, and they have given our team the mandate to understand what will be the contribution of the Gates Foundation in this space. I'm really interested to be part of this team.

As a Senior Program Officer for Integrated Delivery, I contribute to the definition of strategy and vision of success for treating childhood illness (particularly pneumonia and diarrhea) and establishing community health worker platforms. Secondly, I design, coordinate and supervise specific grants. We make sure to follow the dollars to the end customer, to be sure that we are delivering on the mission to achieve a world where "everyone has a chance to live a healthy, productive life.”

Advice for Payson Center students from Dr. Basinga: Be of service

In closing, I want to stress to current Payson students that you have chosen the right career! Development is an old concept, there has been a lot of study on the subject, but countries are still slow to catch up with and to translate the many research findings into actual effective implementation of proven and effective solutions.... there's still a lot of work to do. But before you start, think about why you are doing this. Be practical. Start small, with a clear vision, one village at a time – and work backwards from there....making sure that you fully involve the poor you are trying to help in identifying problems and solutions. This is what will save you when you begin to reel at the thought of all the work there is to do. Remember to keep the poorest person first in your mind, and how everything you do must ultimately serve them. This is what will keep you motivated.

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