25 November 2008

The Interview: Dr. Wendy Baldwin

As I wrote earlier, my most recent contribution to Buisness Lexington features Dr. Wendy Baldwin of the Population Council, the premiere global NGO that conducts public health research on population issues.

Dr. Baldwin was exceptionally gracious with her time. I'm particularly impressed with the commitment she's made to poverty and gender issues, and to furthering the careers of women in research. Here's our Q&A.

Q: Would you please explain Population Council's mission and what you do there?

A: The Population Council is an international non-governmental organization with the motto "Research that makes a difference"...we have offices in 18 countries and work in more. there are programs in reproductive health; HIV and AIDS; and then the one I lead, in Poverty, Gender, and Youth. In the Poverty, Gender, and Youth program we develop an evidence base about how adolescents make the transition to healthy, productive adulthood.

Q: You had a position at the University of Kentucky that anyone would consider an excellent capstone to an outstanding career, but then you decided to take a position at the Population Council. What prompted the departure from UK to the big city?

A: I have a career because from very early on I was motivated by the challenges faced by young people -- especially young women -- to make it to adulthood with the basic skills that they need for their lives and able to have the number of children they want. So, while UK is a great place, this was a chance to go back to the topics that hold my heart... I just felt that was the capstone that I wanted for my career.

Q: It seems you spend a lot of time going back and forth from Lexington. What is it about this area that keeps you here?

A: It is true, I commute between Manhattan and Lexington... my husband lives here in Lexington (and I am rather fond of him!) and Lexington is just a terrific place to live.

Q: What does success look like in your line of work?

Success sometimes takes a long time to see, but when you see it in a better life for young people; when you see them able to take on leadership roles in their own communities; when you see them freed from some of the most damaging practices; well... that looks like success.

Q: What are some examples of that?

A: Success might come quickly, but more often it is a long process. The kinds of problems we deal with take a long time to address. There may be longstanding traditions of child marriage, but families and communities can learn ways to redefine those traditions that also protect young girls from marriage. the younger the girl, the greater the age GAP between her and her spouse, the less voice she is likely to have in the decision to marry, the end of schooling and the beginning of very early childbearing. So, when we see communities that begin to value their daughters more, provide alternatives for them, support their schooling, and open up new opportunities for them... well, that looks like success to me!

Q: Why should people in Lexington or Kentucky pay attention to the work you do? How does it relate to people here?

A: Work that we do goes to the heart of how girls are valued (or not)... I believe these are issues that everyone can relate to. Too often problems in developing countries seem so far away and it isn't clear what can be done to make the lives of girls better. Well, I have seen programs that have a transformative effect on girls; I've talked with fathers who were so appreciative of the help in finding a better life for their daughters...there is a fundamental satisfaction that comes from such work.

Now, I also think that this work is a wonderful way to spread a vision of the compassion of people for others. I would like more people to associate that view with the people of Kentucky.

Q: Recently you told me about a meeting at the World Bank that featured participation from large companies. How does the corporate sector play a role in your work?

A: There is growing involvement of the corporate sector in the work that we do. For many companies that work around the world, they see the need for young people to have positive life courses, and to develop their potential. Also, many of these programs help young people make the transition into income generating work. One of the most popular aspects of such programming is financial literacy. young people are eager to learn how to manage their money -- when they are able to earn it -- and how to function in a world that may be very different from what their parents' experienced growing up. We are working with banks to develop savings products that are especially geared to young people. Sometimes it seems that people think poor teenagers have no need for banks; but it is the poorest who are most in need of help in learning how to protect themselves against financial shocks and have safe places to save.

Q: Given your ties to Central Kentucky, do you feel there's a role for the local business community in supporting your work? What are some of the options available to local firms? What will they gain by supporting you?

A: I would love to see the business community come together and sponsor an internship so that a student in Kentucky could learn more about this work. I think there are many students in Kentucky who understand the challenges Of growing up in a changing world... and they could bring their skills to others who are facing challenges that are, frankly, unimaginable to most of us. Also, some have said that the greatest happiness comes from knowing that you have done something that makes the world a better place... sounds corny, but I believe it, I feel it, I live it and I'd like to see more students get the opportunity to experience it.

Q: Is there anything I haven't asked but should?

A: How are we different from a humanitarian organization? we do not just provide services to those in need. there is a role for humanitarian organizations, especially in times of crisis. but, there is also a need for organizations that seek to understand problems in ways that they can build an evidence base and support fundamental changes. We look for ways that the results of our work can influence governments to change policies -- perhaps to make it permissible for young girls to return to school if married, or programs that specifically support school fees.

It is exciting to see families or communities change practices in constructive ways.

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