Kenneth Frazier the CEO of Merck is the epitome of a humanitarian

Kenneth Frazier-CEO Merck

19 August is marked as World Humanitarian day.

At a time when the pursuit of profit seems to override any other corporate mission, Kenya’s fragile, unstable and hard to reach North-Eastern counties is about the last place any company would consider spending any amount of resources.

Consider this. In 2014, one of the North Eastern counties called, Mandera, had a maternal mortality ratio of 3,795 deaths per 100,000 live births, surpassing that of wartime Sierra Leone. It is inhabited by a nomadic community, riven by internecine conflicts, pockets of extremism and cross border terrorism. Widespread illiteracy and cultural practices like female genital mutilation and child marriage ensured women and girls would remain trapped in poverty and desperation.

Only the bravest and optimistic of humanitarian agencies maintained a presence, amid shrinking budgets for international development.

In 2014, UN agencies in Kenya, like UNFPA, UNICEF and WHO were looking for ways together with the Government of Kenya and the First Lady of Kenya’s Beyond Zero Campaign, to bring down the rate of mothers dying while giving birth, and one option was to look to the corporate world.

A Private Sector Health Alliance was forged to deliver “a combined assault,” to use the CEO of Kenya’s Safaricom, Mr Bob Collymore’s words, in the 6 counties in the north east of Kenya which contribute to 50% of the maternal deaths. Around 6000–8000 women used to die at childbirth each year.

Under Ken Frazier’s leadership Merck(through Merck for Mothers) was one of the first companies together with Philips, Safaricom, Huawei, Glaxo Smith Klein(GSK) and Kenya Health Care Federation to sign up in a coalition aimed at developing new products and service delivery models to improve maternal and new-born health among most vulnerable populations in Kenya.

As we celebrate World Humanitarian Day this year and pay tribute to aid workers who risk their lives in humanitarian service, the decision by Merck, Philips, Safaricom, Huawei, GSK and Kenya Health Care Federation to join the United Nations in a mission that had almost everything going against chances of success must be celebrated.

This is the same spirit that Ken Frazier, CEO of Merck, exhibited when he resigned from a very high level forum. In a statement, Frazier said that his resignation was “a matter of personal conscience” and “a stand against intolerance and extremism.” It is his personal conscience and belief that all people are created equal led him to take a firm stand against intolerance and extremism, despite the difficulty of seeming to defy a head of state. It is easy to take for granted the courage that is required to take such actions.

The United Nations Secretary General Mr Anotonio Guterres tweeted on August 17, 2017, “Racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism & Islamophobia are poisoning our societies. We must stand up against them. Every time. Everywhere”.

Today, we remember those who put their lives at great risk to protect the lives and dignity of civilians caught in conflict, but we also celebrate those individuals who have the courage to speak out against the values that dehumanise others on account of their race or religion.

We salute corporations like Merck, Philips, Safaricom, Huawei, GSK and Kenya Health Care Federation who joined this partnership and whose work in Kenya is making a difference in ways beyond the chequebook. In Mandera today, the coalition of public and private sector has brought positive infrastructure and logistical improvements. Philips has built a community life center(CLC) which will provide the community with modern, high quality, integrated health services for mother and child care. More mothers are giving birth in facilities and the overall maternal mortality rate is on a downward slope.

It is a time to remind those most blessed with resources and positions that they have an obligation to tackle the world’s greatest challenges. Ken Frazier is one such extraordinary individual whose example has lifted our collective human spirit.