Saving Lives at Birth

Cross-posted: Saudi Life  August 5, 2013

Written by: Aisha Al Hajjar 


USAID photo

LAST week I attended a grant award ceremony hosted by USAID in collaboration with the Government of Norway, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Grand Challenges Canada in Washington D.C.  On their website it states,

“Every year 150,000 mothers and 1.6 million newborns die during childbirth and 1.2 million infants are stillborn. In an effort to accelerate progress toward the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) 4 and 5, which aim to end preventable child and maternal deaths…[we bring] together leading innovators, development experts, and potential funders [to build] a community of creative thinkers to address this global need.  Saving Lives at Birth has funded 39 innovations since the challenge began in 2011.” 

The focus of the forum is to grant awards to organizations that are working to create innovate programs and tools to reduce maternal and infant deaths in the poorest countries in the world.  The focus was on countries such as Afghanistan, Senegal, Kenya, Guatemala, Sudan, Nigeria, Egypt, Indonesia, Zambia, Rwanda, and others.

I was fortunate to be invited to the event as a press member at such a program and to have firsthand access to the work of the many innovators who were present.  I found it inspiring to observe the efforts of so many people who are working to end needless deaths of women and children around the time of birth. 

This event was an accumulation of years of efforts and brought together 53 finalists of over 1500 entrants.  You can review a list of the twenty-two awards granted on USAID’s press release page

Of course there was the expected focus on some of the obvious issues in low resource settings, such as treating postpartum hemorrhage, improving maternal iron status, vaccinations, preventing transmission of AIDS from mother to baby, effective resuscitation of newborns in distress, and prevention of pregnancies in the first place.  The ideas presented were innovative and took into account factors such as low financial resources, lack of highly-skilled birth attendants, and logistical challenges, such as spotty electricity and lack of clean water.

There were also supportive and motivational speeches delivered by many impressive presenters.  The list of speakers included United States Ambassador Susan E. Rice, National Security Advisor; Dr. Rajiv Shah, Administrator, USAID; HRH Princess Sarah Zeid of Jordan; New York Times best-selling author Dan Heath, and NASA astronaut retired Col. Ron Garan.

As a resident of the Middle East myself, I was especially impressed to see HRH Princess Sarah Zeid of Jordan and her passion for women and babies.  But I think the speeches that were most moving to me was the ones delivered by Dan Heath and Col. Ron Garan.

Heath spoke to motivate innovators and inventors.  He highlighted our tendencies to focus on issues that don’t work, rather than those that do.  His premise was to stop “problem solving” and start “cloning things that work well.”  He spoke of “finding the bright spots of a situation.”  He stated that our tendencies to focus on what’s wrong, may blind us to find solutions that are right in front of us.  He challenged the inventors to spend more time on the bright spots and disregard the insurmountable problems that the world will continuously dish out.  In short he stated, “Spend less time agonizing over problems and more time obsessing about our success.”

This was right up my alley as an advocate for natural birth and community education and awareness.  In fact, I was also inspired to see that some of the efforts were already aimed at less medical and more basic issues, such as education and communication, although not all of these got funded.  One example was a radio campaign aimed at the men of the local community targeted to engage their support of their pregnant wives during the time of pregnancy and birth, thereby improving her access to antenatal care and attendance of the birth by skilled attendants. 

Another that was near to my heart was a request for funds to study the benefits of leaving the umbilical cord intact during neonatal resuscitation, rather than the common practice of immediate cord clamping and removal of the newborn from its mother during treatment.  I would have loved to see this project funded, but alas, it was not amongst those granted.

Garan’s speech also moved me, as he spoke of a united world.  He stated that we, as a human community, are all in this [life on Earth] together.  He said that our possibilities as a human race are only limited by our imaginations, and more importantly, our actions.  In fact, he pointed out that ideas are highly over rated without action.  He also spoke of the need for true open collaboration to reduce duplication of efforts and rid unhealthy competition and corruption.  He went on to say that everyone contributes something unique and our barriers are not technical but cultural.  He went on to say that nothing is impossible and there are plenty of resources in this world for everyone.  As I sat in the audience taking notes as he spoke, I felt an overwhelming sense of Islam in his words, even if he didn’t recognize it himself! 

SubhanAllah, to follow this deen and provide for those less fortunate by sharing our resources truly is the answer to so many of our world’s problems, if only the Islamic community was the thriving and prevailing model in its perfection.


There are still opportunities for grants from this initiative and I’d love to see more involvement from Islamic countries and organizations.  In fact, I would like to invite brothers and sisters who have innovative ideas, to look into this effort and join the global movement to solve the many human problems facing our world today.  I would also pass this invitation to organizations, hospitals, government departments, schools and universities that have the ability to share their knowledge and experience and benefit the world through programs such as these.  In fact, I would personally be thrilled to assist in any such project and pray that Allah guide and support us in our efforts towards a more united global community that works to provide for all members of our human race.