E N D P I E C E
A splendid torch
Peter Adamson pays tribute to the inspirational life of Jim Grant,
the former Executive Director of UNICEF.
When Jim Grant died of cancer in January of this year, his small room in a suburban hospital near New York was crowded with messages of goodwill from all over the world. Among them were many from Presidents and Prime Ministers, including a note at his bedside from Bill Clinton thanking him ‘from the bottom of my heart for your service to America, to UNICEF, and most of all to the children of the world’.
A few days later, the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine (which New Yorkers like to claim is the largest cathedral in the world on the technicality that St Peter’s is a Basilica) was packed to its 3,000-seat capacity by those who had come to pay tribute to a man whom speaker after speaker described as ‘one of the true heroes of the twentieth century’.
It was an extraordinary event. Almost every country and culture was represented – in a Christian church with a Muslim prayer mat before an altar flanked by Buddhist emblems. And not even the intimidatingly religious atmosphere of the vast Gothic nave could prevent the applause that broke out when Hillary Clinton announced from the pulpit that, as a tribute to Jim Grant, the United States would at last sign the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It was an emotional moment. For almost everyone present knew that it had been one of Jim Grant’s greatest frustrations that his own Government was one of the very few which had refused to sign the Convention.
Since leaving the New Internationalist 15 years ago, I have had the privilege of working closely with Jim Grant. Over those years, there have been times when I thought he was quite wrong, and times when I thought he was quite mad. But always the man’s sheer courage, belief in what he was doing, and total lack of concern for himself, won me and many others to his side.
The measurable achievements have been documented in the many hundreds of obituaries over recent weeks. Increasing immunization from 20 per cent to 80 per cent of the developing world’s children was a fight that he led from the front. Measles deaths have fallen from three million to one million a year, polio cases from 500,000 to 100,000. And it was he who took up the cause of oral rehydration therapy when it was scarcely known outside the laboratory (it is now being used by about a third of the developing world’s families and saving an estimated one million lives a year). It is largely thanks to his leadership, also, that the world is on the brink of eliminating vitamin A deficiency and the iodine-deficiency disorders which have long been a major cause of preventable mental retardation (26 million people are severely brain damaged in the world today).
In pursuit of such outrageously ambitious goals, Jim Grant met with almost every President and Prime Minister in the developing world – never without the sachet of oral rehydration salts in his pocket, or a dropper to test whether the salt at the state dinner was iodized, or the latest figure for the number of children being killed and malnourished by vaccine-preventable disease in whatever nation he happened to be visiting.
But as the tributes poured in during January and February, I could not help remembering those times in the early and mid- 1980s when Jim Grant seemed to be surrounded by nothing but criticism and hostility: his goals were not achievable; they were too ‘top down’; he was ‘tunnel visioned’; he was ‘dealing only with symptoms’. The development establishment, in particular, scorned the simple solutions he espoused.
As all who worked with him knew, Jim Grant had a detailed grasp of development issues, from economics to demography. But he put all of his knowledge and experience at the service of simplicity. And he did so because he was interested not in impressing his intellectual equals but in getting things done. And he knew that this meant reaching out with powerful, simple, repeated messages to politicians, press and public.
His courage, determination, and self-belief during those early years carried many doubters like me. The more the experts told him that it was impossible to raise immunization levels to 80 per cent by 1990, or to reach the vast majority of the world’s families with other low-cost methods of health protection, the more physical and mental energy he would throw at the task, the more he would search for ways to ‘end-run’ the problems, and the more he would demand of his shell-shocked troops.
For the last two years he travelled the world and worked his 18-hour days visiting over 40 heads of state knowing that he was dying. Over that whole time I never heard him complain or even refer to his illness except for practical purposes. The nearest he came was the special gleam in his eye when he used what became one of his favourite quotations:
‘This is the true joy in life, being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and, as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.’
Peter Adamson co-founded New Internationalist and has worked for many years on UNICEF’s The State of the World’s Children.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995