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Interview - Johannes Hunger

Related Expertise:Social Impact

Working Hard at Work Worth Doing

An Interview with Johannes Hunger

February 11, 2013

“There is nothing better than putting one’s resources and energy behind something that you are fully convinced is the right thing to do.”

Those are the words of Johannes Hunger, senior manager of strategy and policy at The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.  The Global Fund was created "to dramatically increase resources to fight three of the world's most devastating diseases, and to direct those resources to areas of greatest need."

Since its founding in 2002, the Global Fund—in partnership with governments, civil society, the private sector, and affected communities—has supported programs in 151 countries.  As the organization's latest results report shows, it has contributed to saving 8.7 million lives, as well as provided AIDS treatment for 3.6 million people, anti-tuberculosis treatment for 9.3 million people, and has dispersed 270 million insecticide-treated nets to prevent malaria.

Johannes (Hamburg, 2004 – 2007) spent the early part of his career as a junior professor of philosophy of science at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin before “being inspired to leave my academic niche and move to consulting by a desire to see some impact of the work I was doing.”

Joining BCG, he says, gave him an opportunity to work on projects that he felt created real change.

“While on a BCG assignment at the World Food Programme, I found the work rewarding in that I could subscribe to the goals of the organization we were working for. This is very much a feeling I’ve brought with me here to my job at the Global Fund,” Johannes said.

That job involves responsibility for roll-out and implementation of some of the Global Fund’s key strategic initiatives and introducing changes to its business model and to the way it provides resources—changes, Johannes says, aimed at making Global Fund support to countries more effective and efficient. 

But before it can do any of this, the Global Fund itself must work to keep the issues of AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria front and center in the minds of public and private sector donors.  “We need a strategy and a story to tell donors why they should give money to these issues, and why they should direct that money through the Global Fund rather than to organizations within their own countries.”

He offers a two-fold rationalization.

First, he says, despite the progress made, there is still a very long way to go in the fight to eradicate these three diseases.  Of the 15 million people in the world infected by AIDS and in need of antiretroviral (AIV) treatment, only about one half currently receive treatment.  “There are still about 7 million people out there that need support and we do not yet have the resources to help them,” he said.

Secondly, when these diseases are addressed in the places where there is most need, it has been shown to have a huge positive effect as a whole, not only in terms of health but in terms also of productivity and economic growth. 

To this second point, Johannes and his team have developed a new funds allocation model, introduced late in 2012. Whereas, previously, resources were distributed on a purely demand-driven approach—where a strong proposal from a country with needs would be enough to get funds flowing—this new model focuses on those countries with the highest needs and the lowest income levels. 

“However, it’s obviously not enough to stress just the needs side of this story to our donors.  We must also tell them why the Global Fund is a good place in which to invest,” said Johannes, who believes his organization makes some good and convincing arguments. 

“In a sense, we are like investors in global heath.  We look closely at programs proposed by individual countries, with an independent group of experts assessing the quality of each proposal. We finance only programs that are technically sound and promising in terms of what our donors will see in return.  We’ve brought a performance-based investment perspective to the area of development aid and offer a solid selling proposition to those donors that channel their money through our organization.”

It is important to stress, he adds, that the Global Fund is a financing organization, not an implementing organization.  Recipients are expected to take what Johannes calls "country ownership" by implementing their own programs based on their own priorities.

“At the same time, it’s important that we harmonize our support with the support of other partners so that we aren’t imposing on recipient countries multiple ways of having to deal with different donors," he said. "Obviously, we want to lower transaction costs—costs that arise from countries having to respond to donor requests, report results, and so on.  If that can be streamlined, then our donors will see a better return on their money."  

Many of the recent changes and developments in the way the Global Fund operates have been supported by a BCG project team.  For Johannes, this was his first experience working on the “client side” of a BCG project.

“I’ve been fascinated to see, up close, how the BCG team works—the way it manages processes and drives them forward; how it challenges our traditional views while introducing fresh ideas; and the extremely high quality of its structural thinking, which has helped us develop and assess options.  It has all been extremely helpful.”

And, of course, he’s able to call on his own experience at BCG. “An ability to quickly understand complex problems in different environments; my own capability to think structurally; project management skills; it has all been very useful," he said. "My consulting experience has helped shape my thoughts on how private sector best practices can be adapted and used here in the public sector.”

Johannes says, however, that he values another level of experience—an experience beyond policy, strategy, and statistics—that is just as important, and perhaps even more rewarding: “It’s when you get up from behind your desk and go to see first-hand those places financed by our programs.”

He recalls, for instance, a visit he made to a South African orphanage supported by the Global Fund.

“I met the children there—young girls and boys—some not yet one year old, who are infected by HIV. They are doing fine because they are on treatment and they are being nurtured and cared for," he said. "To see just one individual—to hold that person in your arms and see that there is happiness and vitality there, where otherwise there would have been no life at all.  To me, that alone is enough to justify the existence of the Global Fund. It’s probably not a good argument for donors, but it’s a very strong personal argument that this is work worth doing.

“That’s what drives me in my job. No matter how hard I have to work or how many hours I have to spend here—and we’re going through a phase where we are working extremely hard—to know that it is all ultimately to help the people affected by these three diseases to survive is a feature of my work that I love and find very satisfying.”

Working Hard at Work Worth Doing