Beyond the statistics

Anil Soni, CEO of the WHO Foundation, on the human impacts of climate change and what philanthropy can do to help

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Anil Soni is the CEO at the WHO Foundation, a grant-making entity working alongside the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other partners. Soni has had a two-decade career in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, expanding healthcare access in low and middle-income countries. He has worked for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, served as CEO of the Clinton Health Access Initiative, and been a senior advisor to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Climate change is happening now, and its effects are being felt through natural disasters and severe weatherevents, droughts, floods, storms like we've never seen before. As a consequence of this, you have disease outbreaks.

The cholera outbreak in Malawi today has actually been linked to the floods in Pakistan. And, as a consequence of these health effects, you have migration; people move, their fields aren't producing as they used to, they need to seek assistance. And, as a consequence of migration, you have conflict.

The statistics we’re hearing can be quite numbing. Seven million people die each year due to air pollution. Half the planet is living in places that are going to be susceptible to climate change. It's hard to understand and internalise those huge numbers.

Let me share an experience that I had during a recent visit to Kenya. There was a little boy being assessed by a health worker. I realised that this little boy was the same weight as my child, but he was twice the age of my child. And that little boy is going to live with the effects of malnourishment for the rest of his life.

Behind every statistic is a story. If you think right now about the person in your life that you love the most - your partner, a parent, or a sibling, a friend, or a child - and then think how you would feel if their lives were affected by climate change. These statistics are other people’s loved ones.

“There are medicines and malaria vaccines being distributed across the African continent right now that were developed as a consequence of philanthropy”

Anil Soni, CEO of the WHO Foundation


Malaria testing and vaccines have been expanded thanks to philanthropic donations. Photo: Sean Sutton/Panos Pictures. Hero image: JB Russell/Panos Pictures.

So, what's the role for philanthropy here? Let me frame this through the lens of my 25 years of experience in global health. The last two decades of global health have been phenomenal. From a billion children vaccinated, tens of millions of people treated for diseases for which there were no therapies 20 years ago. Philanthropy has made that possible.

Philanthropy can take risks. Philanthropy can develop new technologies, scale them up, and then hand them over to the market or to public finance. That's what philanthropy has been able to do in global health over the last 20 years. And as a result, tens of millions of people are alive today who would not otherwise be alive. There are medicines and malaria vaccines being distributed across the African continent right now that were developed as a consequence of philanthropy.

So what can philanthropy do for climate and for climate and health? The answer is so much. There are diseases like dengue are soon going to be prevalent across the planet as a consequence of climate change. But there's also a naturally occurring bacteria called Wolbachia, which can eliminate dengue transmission. But we need philanthropic investment to scale up this response.

Philanthropy can help fund the use of solar on the African continent so more people have access to health care, and there are other technologies too, much like there was with HIV medicines, where the price was too high for things to be scaled, that need investment to scale.

Clean cooling, for example, which is going to be so important in places like Indonesia, China, and India, because as temperatures rise and more people need air conditioners, that’s going to driving up temperatures and carbon. The technologies exist for us to avoid that, but they need philanthropic investment to be able to scale.

So there are a number of ways in which philanthropy can get us started and take a risk. I think this is the critically important role that philanthropy can play a role in helping to meet the needs of communities around the world that are being hit by climate change. It isn't necessarily going to be the silver bullet.

I know business leaders and philanthropic donors like to look for catalytic investment where you have high ROI. We absolutely need those investments. But we also need to make sure that we're allocating resources to local communities and to indigenous communities who are being hit the hardest, but who also have some of the best solutions because local knows best.

Philanthropy can make a difference today both for the communities that are being affected by climate change as well as in help to develop the types of tools and technologies that businesses can help scale, that government finance can help scale and that can make a difference in climate mitigation and adaptation for which health is the human face.

This article is an edited version of Anil’s keynote remarks at the Reaching the Last Mile Forum held at COP28 in the UAE in December 2023.