Q&A with Agnes Binagwaho, Rwanda’s Former Minister of Health

In her 2017 TEDMED Talk, Rwanda’s former Minister of Health, Dr. Agnes Binagwaho, shed light on the experience of rebuilding Rwanda’s health system after the devastating 1994 genocide. We talked with Agnes to learn more about her past efforts and to find out what she’s working on today.

TEDMED: Can you describe some of the biggest challenges you faced as you began work to rebuild Rwanda’s health system? How did you overcome them?

Agnes Binagwaho: The biggest challenge I faced was figuring out how to do the most good and save the most lives with the extremely limited resources and infrastructure that existed, and beyond that, figuring out how to contribute to the growth of a system that would deliver the quality care I wanted for all children of Rwanda. Rwanda’s health sector was destroyed and there was a strong need for not just health professionals, but committed health fighters. We overcame these challenges by uniting as a country to determine the best way forward while still remaining true to our vision. We knew that if anyone was going to stand up for us, it was going to have to be us. We took that national commitment and leveraged it into a real transformation, a transformation in which our systems and our laws are mandated to serve the most vulnerable and to leave no one out.

TM: Have you seen Rwanda’s health system successes be leveraged in other countries? Have there been other unexpected outcomes that have emerged as a result of your work?

AB: In many places, similar interventions, policies, and practices are being introduced as the ones we introduced in Rwanda. Particularly around how, as a country, we are able to provide equitable, quality health care to all, and how to use ICT [Information and Communication Technology] in the management of the health system. Our health professionals often advise other national health sectors or organizations on the lessons learned in Rwanda and how they can be applied elsewhere. We are part of a global fight to make a healthier future and we are learning from one another so that we will all reach the SDGs.

TM: You are the Vice Chancellor of the University of Global Health Equity, which is unlike any other university we know. What is global health equity, and how do you teach it?

AB: At the University of Global Health Equity, our vision is a world where every individual – no matter who they are or where they live – can lead a healthy and productive life. We know that this vision is ambitious and that we will face a lot of challenges in its pursuit. We teach the values of accompaniment, compassion, commitment, and integrity to ensure a preferential option for the poor in health care. Our students are trained to connect with the communities most in need and to break down the barriers between academia and medicine and cities and rural or impoverished settings. They are trained to advocate for patients and to look beyond the traditional margins of health care and integrate a holistic view of health into practice and policymaking. At UGHE, we empower global health professionals to be leaders and managers and to use these tools to solve problems for those most in need, and to find lasting and inclusive solutions to the greatest global health challenges today.

Dr. Agnes Binagwaho leads a group discussion during the University of Global Health Equity’s Global Health Delivery Leadership Program, a certificate course conducted in partnership with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Photo by Zacharias Abubeker for UGHE.

TM: What advice would you give young emerging leaders interested in politics and health reform?

AB: I would tell any young leader interested in this field to join us without hesitation, we need young and energetic thinkers to take up the fight for global health equity and to bring new ideas and innovative solutions to the health challenges of today and tomorrow. I would tell them to follow their dreams and to find what motivates them for public good. We need global health fighters that are passionate and outspoken advocates for those most in need. The field of global health is vast and multidisciplinary, and everyone has a role to play in ensuring access to quality health care for all. There is so much to do.

TM: What was the TEDMED experience like for you?

AB: The experience of the TEDMED talk was great; the scientific content was fantastic and spanned a variety of topics. I loved it; and I learned a lot. It was well organized and I felt really welcome in the community. It was also an occasion for networking with people with diverse experiences, but with the same goals, passions, and vision for a healthier future. I am grateful for the opportunity to come together with such great thinkers and advocates.