A Decade of Determination: Eliminating River Blindness

Phrases like ‘South-South trade’ get traction in conversation because they become universal shorthand for more than just economic activity. They capture the imagination because they are emotive, conveying a feeling of regional confidence and of unleashing new possibilities. I think the same is true of the concept of South-South philanthropy. This idea of regions looking inwards for solutions isn’t new, but as in business, it is the high-profile examples of impactful giving that stick in our collective consciousness, acting as a yard stick that progress is really being made.

And it is. Last week saw the announcement of precisely such an ambitious South-South philanthropic initiative, one whose roots are firmly planted in the Middle East. A US$100 million fund, the Reaching the Last Mile Fund was unveiled at the Reaching the Last Mile: Mobilizing Together to Eliminate Infectious Diseases Summit. This is thanks to the vision and patronage of His Highness, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and the partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, with additional collaborative support from USAID, DFID, Merck and GlaxoSmithKline.

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Photo Credit: DTJ/The END Fund

The new initiative is preceded by 30 years of uninterrupted funding to tackle global health challenges, including Guinea worm disease, malaria, and neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), starting with commitments from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) founder, Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nayan to support global Guinea worm disease eradication efforts. However, this commitment moves beyond convening and supporting, boldly setting the agenda to eliminate river blindness and lymphatic filariasis, across priority countries in Africa and the Middle East.

Like the ancient Silk Route and South-South trade, the tradition of giving in the Middle East is embedded in culture. Just as the Silk Route is re-emerging with its axis shifted to reflect new borders and realities, the tradition of philanthropy is modernizing with an appreciation of the nimble, directed giving that actively seeks out opportunities for systemic change. When we look back at this phase of history, I’m convinced that scholars of philanthropy will say that strategic global collaboration is what has characterized 21st century giving. The determination to eliminate another of the world’s most pernicious diseases has spurred the new fund’s supporters to commit to a partnership with clear and common targets that will last for ten years. A decade of determination is the length of time needed to ensure that together they reach the end.

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Photo Credit: DTJ/The END Fund

Today, several major global diseases are on the verge of eradication. Because of exceptional coordinated global efforts, Guinea worm disease and polio are set to become the next human diseases in history to be eradicated, following the eradication of smallpox in 1980. The incidence of Guinea worm, a crippling parasitic disease that incapacitates people for extended periods of time, has fallen from a peak of approximately 3.5 million in 21 countries in Africa and Asia in 1986, to just a handful of cases so far in 2017. Cases of polio have fallen from 350,000 in 1988 to a record low of 37 cases in 2016, and just 12 cases of wild poliovirus so far this year in two countries: Pakistan and Afghanistan.

It has taken a great level of partnership to get to this point. Support from the UAE has been critical to maintain momentum, rally regional donors, and help polio vaccinators get to children in some of the hardest-to-reach places in Pakistan. For a country whose foreign aid investments are 1.12 percent of its Gross National Income (GNI) (compared to the 0.7 percent figure for the UK, which is widely regarded as a leader in development aid giving) and has declared 2017 its ‘Year of Giving’, it should come as no surprise that with such a high level of commitment, the UAE and other Middle East donors are developing a keen eye for outcomes.

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 Photo Credit: The END Fund

We were deeply honored when the Crown Prince Court approached the END Fund to ask if we would be willing to host and manage such an innovative and important new fund. We have collaboration woven into our organizational DNA, always looking to connect the most effective implementing partners and mobilize resources to ensure that systems work efficiently, in sustainable ways and for the best possible outcome.


Our belief that no single organization has the ability to solve problems of this scale alone is clearly mirrored in the way that the UAE thinks about philanthropy. They are among a wave of collaborative philanthropists increasingly focused on the entire systems approach to social change and on outcomes and impacts rather than the act of giving. Their determination to keep refocusing on the same issue, to see it through to the end, will help unleash new possibilities for millions of lives. So now when I think about ‘South-South philanthropy’, the idea evokes feelings of great energy and anticipation that we will see the end of these diseases in our lifetime.

About the Author /

Ellen is proud to serve as the Chief Executive Officer of the END Fund, where she has led the organization since its inception in pursuit of a bold goal – to end five neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) that affect over 1.5 billion people. Ellen has worked in global health, development and humanitarian response for over 20 years across more than 50 countries.

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