Good afternoon everyone. Thank you, Raj, for that kind introduction and for inviting me to be part of this wonderful event. You are doing an outstanding job as USAID Administrator. And I want especially to commend the dedicated staff of USAID for your commitment to our country and to our world. You’ve all done a remarkable job advancing the President’s vision to elevate development alongside diplomacy and defense as an equal pillar of our national security strategy.
Of course, I also want to join Raj in thanking our partners who have worked with USAID over the past three years to make the Saving Lives at Birth initiative a real success. So thank you to the Government of Norway, Grand Challenges Canada, and the UK’s Department for International Development, and of course the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
As Raj said, this is, in fact, my first public speaking engagement as National Security Advisor. When I was at the UN I had to speak almost every day, and in this job I don’t get out much. (Laughter)
But I wanted to come here today because it’s important that we underscore that economic development and saving lives matters greatly – it matters to the United States, it matters to President Obama, and it matters to me personally.
That’s because right now, somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, a young, probably terrified woman is going into labor. As any mother can tell you, and as I can tell you, it’s never easy. And it’s always at least a little bit scary—even when you’re blessed to enjoy the wonders of modern medicine. But this woman is giving birth in a remote village with very limited resources. Electricity is spotty, if it exists at all. Any equipment is outdated and rudimentary. There are no trained doctors, nurses or even probably midwives to assist her delivery. Before she’s even started to push, she’s 136 times more likely to die giving birth than if she were living in a developed country.
So the crucial question is: how can we help her? How can we make sure that she isn’t one of the 150,000 women who die each year in child birth? How can we make sure that her baby isn’t one of the 1.6 million who die within 48 hours of birth or one of the 1.2 million still births that occur each year?
Thanks to the Saving Lives at Birth initiative, we now have some new answers.
If her labor becomes obstructed, a local attendant might soon be able to reach for an Odon device, making it easier for the baby’s head to pass through the birth canal. I just took a look at the Odon device and I recalled my experience my first time giving birth, when I had to become familiar with the forceps. I was really looking at this thing, hoping that it would look better net-net (laughter) compared to the forceps. But the good news is, you can use it anywhere and it’s inexpensive. It probably doesn’t leave any damage to the head. But the bad news is, you still gotta work it in there. (Laughter). But, it’s progress.
If the baby has trouble breathing once it’s born, a clinic might be able to use a new kind of affordable C-PAP device that costs one-fortieth the amount of standard hospital equipment here in the west but is equally effective in pushing oxygen through the baby’s airways.
And, in the future, if a mother knows she is HIV positive, as soon as she gives birth at home or somewhere away from a medical facility, she’s able to rip open a Pratt pouch—just like you would rip open a fast-food packet of ketchup—and deliver a fresh dose of anti-retroviral drugs to her newborn baby so that she doesn’t have to pass the disease on to her precious child.
These are just some examples. And they aren’t just steps in the right direction; they are potential game-changers. And they started right here.
By the way, if you need proof that revolutionary ideas can come from anyone, anywhere, you should learn a little bit more about this Odon device that I was describing. It’s the brain child of an Argentinean auto mechanic with no medical training who was trying to fish the cork out of a wine bottle using nothing but a plastic bag. Now, don’t ask me how that’s supposed to work. His “eureka” moment came in the middle of the night when he realized the same trick could help deliver babies. His wife told him to roll over and go back to sleep, but today, a major manufacturer is planning to collaborate to take the device to scale for use across the developing world.
So, we live in an era of furious change and unlimited technological potential. So we can’t just keep doing the same things the way they’ve been done before. We need to harness our power for progress and put it to work improving the lives of people around the world. That’s the spirit the Obama Administration has brought to all of our development work.
The United States leads the world when it comes to providing humanitarian assistance, but we’ve also shifted our efforts towards empowering countries to lead their own development. That is how to break the cycle of poverty and dependence that still holds so many nations back.
That’s why American initiatives like Feed the Future and the New Alliance for Food Security aren’t just about bringing food to hungry people. They’re about building stronger agricultural systems so that countries can feed themselves.
President Obama’s Global Health Initiative is working with an increasing number of partners and countries who have stepped up to join with us as equals, sharing the responsibility for building stronger, self-sustaining health systems.
Our 1,000 Days partnership seeks to improve maternal and child nutrition during that critical window from conception through a child’s second birthday, because we know that early interventions can impact a child’s growth and development for the rest of her life.
We’ve put a priority on ending preventable child and maternal deaths. And now, for the first time since the AIDS epidemic began ravaging populations all around the world, the treatments and interventions that we’ve employed—including preventing mother-to-child transmission—have put the dream of an AIDS-free world and an AIDS-free generation within our grasp.
Hunger and disease, poverty and desperation— these do more than destroy individual lives. They erode our common humanity, even as they threaten the security of our interconnected world. On the other hand, when we give more people the tools to succeed on their own, we’re investing in a secure and prosperous future for all, at home and abroad.
That’s why we host these kinds of competitions. In just three years, more than 1,500 innovators have answered our call for new ideas to help mothers give birth in rural or impoverished areas. Some of our past winners are already making a profound difference in countries where their projects are being piloted and scaled. But we need more eureka moments and more unorthodox partnerships to meet persistent global challenges.
We don’t yet know who among this year’s finalists will take home the grants—we’ll find out in just a few minutes—but, I do hope that all of you will keep on innovating.
There’s still too many women like that young mother in Africa and her baby who continue to need our help. They cannot wait for change to happen by chance or accident. They need students and designers, researchers and entrepreneurs like you to lead the change. And as you do, the United States will continue to stand with you, finding ways to support your success, so that we can keep saving lives together.
Thank you very much.