Architect of global health

By Ret Boney

As a college student in South Africa during the height of apartheid, Derek Yach was a witness to inequality and injustice, an experience that sparked a passion in him.

“I was always interested in what one can do to further social welfare,” says Yach, a professor of public health at Yale and former World Health Organization official.

Now, he will take philanthropic aim at some of the world’s toughest problems as the new director of global health for the Rockefeller Foundation in New York.

The foundation, with $3.2 billion in assets, 186 employees worldwide and $124 million in grants and other program expenditures in 2004, is on the forefront of global public health.

“I’d always associated Rockefeller with some of the most important innovations in public health,” he says, noting that, among other contributions, the foundation started Johns Hopkins’ school of public health, the first such program in the U.S. and Yach’s alma mater.

The foundation has been a force in global health care since its founding 92 years ago, working to improve the health of people in developing countries, encouraging the development of new drugs and vaccines, and fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

While he doesn’t begin officially until January 17, Yach is participating in the foundation’s current strategic planning process that he says will help chart the future of Rockefeller’s global health efforts.

“The big theme has been equity in health,” he says.  “How do you get even a greater global impact with the investment you have, not just the dollars but with the intellectual contribution of the staff and the power of convening as well?”

By March, he says he hopes the foundation will have “a couple of clear directions for the future that will likely include some changes in current health priorities.”

Derek Yach

Job: Director of global health, Rockefeller Foundation, effective Jan. 17

Education: Medical degree, University of Cape Town, South Africa; B.S., epidemiology, University of Stellenbosch, South Africa; master’s, public health, Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health

Born: 1955, Cape Town, South Africa

Family: Wife, Yasmin Von Schirnding, advisor to World Health Organization on sustainable development; son, age 2

Hobbies: Long-distance swimming

Inspiration: Moshe Prywes, founding dean of medical school and school of public health, Ben Gurion University, Israel; Gro Harlem Brundtland, former director of WHO and former prime minister of Norway

Hero: Nelson Mandela

The group has about six people on staff, Yach says, and has been “spending down on programs to make space for new strategic directions.”

Yach sees several critical roles philanthropy can play in global health, including helping develop the systems that deliver new drugs and vaccines to the people that need them most, efforts that often fail because governments can’t distribute the medications or equipment.

“At the moment, there’s a strong focus on investment to produce needed products and diagnostic equipment,” he says.  “How do you build a system-wide, long-term approach with governments that will be financially sustainable and will be able to deliver the new products that are coming on stream?”

He also believes philanthropy can help people who are wedded to their own specific products and diseases work across turf and territory to tackle immense, interdisciplinary problems.

And philanthropy has an important role in working with all the players to set the agenda for the future, Yach says.

“In an era where there are a large number of new philanthropists, the convening capability of Rockefeller is desperately needed,” he says.  “Over the past decades, they’ve been able to bring disparate, disagreeing groups together.”

A native of Cape Town, South Africa, Yach grew up in the apartheid era, in a white family that opposed racial discrimination.

His grandfather started health clinics in poor sections of Cape Town and later created a family foundation, today run by Yach’s mother, to fund health care and education reform in the poorest parts of the city.

“My late grandfather was an inspiration,” Yach says.  “Living in that environment, the importance of doing something for others was a constant part of the discourse,” he says.

He saw public health as a way to change the world for the better, he says, and earned a medical degree as well as a master’s in public health.

“We were struggling to find the best examples of policies that could lift us out of the apartheid era,” he says of his years as a student.

He began his career as a researcher in South Africa for the Institute for Biostatistics and later as head of the Center for Epidemiological Research.

Two weeks after Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as president of South Africa in 1994, Yach was the first South African recruited to the World Health Organization after his country regained its membership status after the fall of apartheid.

He initially worked as a consultant and was hired the following year to coordinate the development of WHO’s global health policy.

Over the next eight years, he also developed and managed its tobacco-free initiative and its non-communicable diseases and mental health efforts before leaving in 2004 to lead the global health division of Yale’s school of public health.

Now, Yach joins that wealth of experience to Rockefeller’s significant resources, convening power and philanthropic heft.

Once he gets things up and running at the foundation, the long-distance swimmer, who once swam the English Channel in less than 10 hours, has big extracurricular plans.

“Depending on how hard they push me at Rockefeller, a swim around Manhattan has to happen,” he says.

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