Remembering Nelson Mandela, advocate for children’s health

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Among the many causes that Nelson Mandela championed, he was a powerful voice for children's rights and access to life-saving vaccines

Nelson Mandella

Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013

Geneva, 6 December 2013 - Nelson Mandela was universally recognised for his inspirational efforts to create a better world. His support for children’s right to health and, in particular, his direct role in building global support for GAVI’s mission, was less well known but just as far-reaching.

As the founding Chair of the Vaccine Fund Board (GAVI’s initial financing arm), Nelson Mandela’s vision, determination and leadership were critical in the Alliance’s early days, helping to put the need to increase access to vaccines for hundreds of millions of children in the world’s poorest countries at the top of the international agenda.

Our primary mission is life critical. Our goal is very clear: to address the gross inequities in child health still existing in the world today. Life or death for a young child too often depends on whether he is born in a country where vaccines are available or not…

Nelson Mandela, addressing the Vaccine Fund Board 2003 meeting in Johannesburg

Nelson Mandela also built political will around the Alliance’s early advocacy and resource mobilisation efforts, rallying high level advocates to join the Board and raising the profile of every child’s universal right to immunisation.

These early supporters included Nelson Mandela’s wife Graça Machel, Her Majesty Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of Jordan, first woman president of Ireland and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, Russian cellist and international advocate for human rights Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007), and Indian economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen.

Significant achievements

During his time as Chair of GAVI, (2001-2004), Nelson Mandela contributed to improving the health of the poorest by:

Nelson Mandela and GAVI representatives

Nelson Mandela at the 2003 Vaccine Fund Board meeting in Johannesburg

  • reaching out to Heads of State in donor countries and urging them to support efforts to extend the benefits of immunisation to every child;
  • laying foundations for the first eight donor countries to support the Vaccine Fund‘s initial fundraising targets of GAVI: Canada, Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Sweden;
  • hosting a key meeting of the Vaccine Fund Board in Johannesburg in 2003, which included Her Majesty Queen Rania of Jordan, Mary Robinson, former co-chair and chief executive officer of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Patty Stonesifer and current Administrator of USAID, Raj Shah, then of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This meeting also included the first visit by Board members to a GAVI supported country, Mozambique.

In 2004, Nelson Mandela’s wife Graça Machel took over as Chair of the Vaccine Fund Board for a three year period, with Nelson Mandela appointed Board Chair Emeritus. In 2008, at Nelson Mandela’s personal invitation, Mary Robinson was appointed Chair of the GAVI Board.

Together, we all have more work to do to achieve the world Mandela helped us dream of.  

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