Shirin Ahmed is with Yale University’s Global Health Leadership Institute. She reflects with Generation Next on her biography, her travels to East Africa, gives her perspectives why international development is important and finally, shares her wisdom to those who may want to emulate such a fulfilling career as hers.
Shirin – Tell me about yourself?
I am originally from Pakistan and later moved to California. Growing up in Pakistan, I was exposed to many of the socio-political challenges that a developing country faces. I saw how weak systems –political, educational and health care—crumbled when the country was struck by internal and external threats. I saw the devastation that Pakistan experienced as a result of natural disasters, a situation worsened by poorly executed development efforts. And I saw how in both scenarios, healthcare, a fundamental human right, became difficult to access for many communities in the country.
As an undergrad at Yale, navigating through the school’s diverse liberal arts curriculum, I chose to deepen my understanding of international development and global health issues. I am currently a Program Manager at the Yale Global Health Leadership Institute where I manage a number of research and programmatic activities related to health systems strengthening. This includes Project Last Mile (a multi-country program focused on supply chain management), a leadership development program with the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a number of other interdisciplinary projects in the US and international settings.
You have had the experience of travelling places such as Uganda via AIESEC. How was that experience like and why do you think that was a worthwhile experience?
I had always wanted to understand what it meant to work in the global health sector. Uganda was my first trip to East Africa. I had previously spent a few months studying Arabic in Morocco, which had given me a completely different picture of the African continent. In Uganda, I had the opportunity to work with a local NGO that served a small rural community to conduct a needs assessment and initiate a number of community-based interventions for women living with HIV/AIDS.
On a personal level, this was one of the most intense and fulfilling experiences of my life. It pushed me to get out of my comfort zone, confront challenges that I had not previously been exposed to, seek comfort in the little things in life and learn to remain flexible amidst the uncertainties and lack of structure of the program. At a professional level, it was an equally enriching experience— witnessing how a community functions in poverty and understanding the difficulties that local organizations confront to effectively implement their programs in the face of limited resources. I realized that one individual or one organization cannot do much, we need a host of stakeholders—global and local—to work together to raise living standards around the world.
Perhaps what made the trip most worthwhile was the opportunity to integrate in the local culture and meet lots of people. I vaguely remember crying myself to bed my first night in Kampala, dreading how I was going to live with so many strangers in a new country. Little did I know that I would be teary saying goodbye to all the amazing friends I had made during my time in Uganda, many of whom I continue to stay in touch with to date.
Share with me about the Yale Global Health Leadership Institute?
The Yale Global Health Leadership Institute is a research institute that brings together faculty, policymakers, and practitioners across disciplines to advance research, policy, and practice in global health at Yale and beyond. We coordinate global health educational opportunities for students, catalyze interdisciplinary research and partnerships with faculty and support countries in their efforts to evaluate and improve organizational performance and health outcomes. Through our work, we have collaborated with many international partners, including Management Sciences for Health, The Global Fund, The Coca-Cola Company, Clinton Health Access Initiative, The Commonwealth Fund and many others.
One of the objective of the new President of Yale, Peter Salovey, is to make global health a priority for the university. Why do you think these ideals are important in the global effort to promote better health in the world?
Global health challenges are among the world’s most urgent and complex problems. The vision for global health at Yale is to inspire university-wide collaboration to improve human health around the globe. By bringing together different expertise, we hope to effectively and sustainably address global health challenges.
You recently made a trip to Ethiopia and hosted Ethiopian delegates to the United States through YGH. Share with me some of the highlights of these trips?
Earlier this month, I travelled with two Yale engineering students to Ethiopia to meet with physicians and engineers at Mekelle University. The purpose of our trip was to present and get feedback on a low-cost and low-tech prototype of a respiratory support system for neonates that the students have developed at Yale. With uncertainty around how the device was going to be received in Ethiopia and leading a group of students who had never been to Africa, I was undoubtedly nervous. However, the trip could not have gone better! The prototype was received with great enthusiasm and while much work needs to be done before the device can be commercially viable, it was reassuring to see that there is a definitely a need for such a device in Ethiopian hospital settings.
Now completely shifting gears, in November this past year, I hosted a group from the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to strategize on issues of regional security, business development and organizational capacity. Bringing together such senior level officials and connecting them to experts at Yale and in DC, it struck me how powerful making a simple connection could go in building a strong and fruitful relationship in the future. It was heartwarming for me to visit the group again in Ethiopia, who insist on calling me by an Ethiopian name they have given me, Shelemat, which means gift in Amharic, and I feel proud of their continued enthusiasm and commitment to work with Yale.
I am no engineer, nor an expert on Ethiopian politics but through my work, I am starting to understand what needs to be done to turn an idea into reality. These projects are like puzzles I am trying to solve (often with lots of missing pieces and a blindfold) but through them, I have come to appreciate the power of bringing people together, of connecting the dots and of being able to come one step closer to making a tangible difference.
To those who are considering in getting involved in international development as well as international affairs, what advice do you have for them?
Many of us studying these concepts enter into the field, thinking we know exactly how to “fix” the problems we see around us. But my advice to all those interested in pursuing a career in international affairs and public health would be to spend some time in the field and get to know the communities you live in. Think big and innovative, be open-minded, recognize the power of collaboration and know that there is no cookie cutter solution to all the world’s problems.