Matshidiso Moeti has been one of Africa’s foremost caretakers for more than three decades.
Last week, she was nominated by 47 member states of the World Health Organization to serve a second five-year term as regional director for Africa, and this week in Yokohama she joined presidents, prime ministers and business leaders at the 7th Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) to discuss the continent’s rapidly growing economy and the health of its people.
“There’s a very strong participation of the health sector in this TICAD,” Moeti said during an interview with The Japan Times. “I see this as a great opportunity for health, as a development sector, to be situated in its rightful place within discussion about investment in Africa from Japan.”
The total population of Africa will hit 2.5 billion in 2050, meaning one in every four people in the world will be African, according to a prediction by the United Nations. Countries like Japan, China, Russia and the United States are trying to capitalize on this growth, but only healthy environments will attract international investment, Moeti said.
“At a very fundamental level, we are contributing to the human capital in these countries,” she said.
“I don’t think that countries can grow if they don’t have healthy people who are educated, skilled, productive, innovative and able to contribute to ideas.”
Moeti spoke of instances where health emergencies led to the downfall of local and regional economies. She alluded to Guinea and Sierra Leone, where a growing mining business was attracting investment up until the devastating outbreak of Ebola began in 2013.
“We’ve seen, in countries where there are disease outbreaks, that businesses that are working there simply pull out,” she said. “Certainly the West Africa Ebola outbreak illustrated this in a very dramatic and stark way.”
“That had a devastating impact on the potential growth in those countries,” she said, adding that serious problems with the health of a community can contribute to an “environment of instability” which could ultimately lead to armed conflict.
Moeti was elected to her first term as regional director at the height of the outbreak in 2014. In the aftermath of the outbreak, the WHO created a contingency fund to be set aside in the event of another outbreak. According to Moeti, Japan has been the biggest contributor to that fund.
“What I’m hoping for is that the Japanese government will continue to be a strong voice of advocacy among other partners, other donors, to support this work,” she said. “We need donors that advocate among others to contribute to these financial needs.”
Moeti is the first woman to serve as regional director in what she said is the WHO region with the highest disease burden, largest number of low-income countries and the largest number of countries with weak health systems. She led the fight against the deadly Ebola virus, introducing comprehensive reforms to increase preparedness against outbreaks and public health emergencies, promoting universal health care coverage and expanding the donor base by engaging with foundations and countries abroad.
She said the regional office is looking into “what the private sector can contribute to health development in the region, both in terms of financing and in terms of health services delivery.”
“I’m hoping for some visible, concrete discussions, concrete decisions to be made about positioning health even better in financing for development in the African region,” Moeti said. “The role of other development sectors in supporting health will also be recognized.”
Over the course of the three-day TICAD meet in Yokohama, African political leaders and Japanese business leaders discussed energy, communication, infrastructure, sanitation, security and employment opportunities for young Africans, among other things.
All of these things, Moeti said, are important for health development, disaster preparedness and even economic stability.
“Those kinds of things can really help us to jump some of the gaps and the challenges that we have in Africa,” she said.
After joining the WHO’s Africa regional office in 1999, Moeti, now a citizen of Botswana, served as deputy regional director, director for the prevention of noncommunicable diseases, WHO representative for Malawi and regional adviser for HIV/AIDS, among other positions.
She was renowned for leading an initiative that would increase access to anti-retroviral drugs for people infected by HIV.
She worked with UNAIDS, UNICEF and Botswana’s Ministry of Health prior to joining the WHO.