Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Agnes Binagwaho on Brain Drain

Every time I meet Agnes Binagwaho, I am struck by her lightness of spirit. There’s usually a hint of mischief in her voice—even when she’s addressing an overflow crowd at Harvard’s School of Public Health, as she did yesterday afternoon.

That’s quite a contrast with her life’s work, which is fighting HIV in Rwanda. Dr. Binagwaho is the head of Rwanda’s national AIDS program. But when she returned to the small African country in 1996, just two years after the genocide, she told us she nearly packed her bags to go back to France. The drugs to treat AIDS were too expensive. Women died in childbirth for “entirely stupid reasons” Binagwaho recalled. “The first week I was back in Rwanda was the worst year of my life,” she continued. “I saw more deaths in one week than I had seen in five years as a pediatrician in France. I nearly packed my bags to go back. There were no resources. Everyone was dying.”

I can’t imagine what would have happened if Binagwaho had turned back. Neither apparently, could a young woman in the audience, a nurse from Rwanda who is now living in the US. It was an extraordinarily poignant moment when this young woman took the microphone and thanked Binagwaho for staying in Rwanda, for helping to bring anti-retroviral medicine to that country and for helping to insure that they are distributed and used properly. Binagwaho was quick to say that she hadn’t done it alone, that many people in Rwanda have worked to make the national AIDS program a success. And that they were now tackling other health issues.

For me, though, it was another illustration of the complexity of the brain drain issue. Binagwaho returned to Rwanda—and is helping to create the conditions that will allow more doctors and nurses to stay. But there was no recrimination for the young nurse who had left. Binagwaho understood far too well why someone might feel compelled to leave.

Related post:
Lament From a Public Hospital in Malawi

Related External Link (updated):
Health Care and Economic Development in Rwanda


Marco Ambrosio said...

I thoroughly agree with your description on Dr. Agnes. She is quite the strong willed, light hearted, and gracious soul. Interviewing her was a privilege I will not soon forget.

Marco Ambrosio

AAA said...

Dr. Binagwaho is simply marvelous. Listening to her talk today was inspiring. Discussing with her afterwards added value to me.
Their work in Rwanda is a model for the rest of Africa and the world.
It also helped me to see how I could be useful to my country in Africa after my training here in the US.

Christine Gorman said...

Binagwaho is a treasure.