Monday, July 30, 2012 12:00 AM

Garrett Young in Africa: leading a fight for better health

Of all the Daily Pennsylvanian alumni scattered across the world, Garrett Young '06 has a singular distinction.

He's one of the few veterans of 4015 Walnut Street living in Africa, and the only one in Swaziland, where he leads a five-member team from the Clinton Health Access Initiative working to improve the health and lives of people in the tiny, land-locked kingdom.

It's a life Young never envisioned when he was a senior at Penn and had "not a clue" about what he would do after graduation. 

Young, 28, grew up in Concord, N.H., majored in History at Penn and served on two DP boards -- as City Editor in 2004 and Managing Editor in 2005.

"I considered journalism, but had a sense (rightly or wrongly), that the only way to pursue it was in a small town somewhere," Young said in a Gchat from Swaziland. "I knew nothing formal about business at all, and so I thought that doing something in the business world would be useful."

"I had a sense I wanted to be DC, but I didn't want it to be political," he added. "I thought that a management consulting-type job would give me the skills to approach problems in a useful way that was different from the way that I had otherwise learned to think."

Young landed a position in Washington with the Corporate Executive Board, a consulting firm. He found his work there interesting and challenging -- and a true learning experience -- but after four years, he yearned for something different.

"I got to the point where I realized I didn't feel like spending all my time helping large companies, but I enjoyed problem-solving and the logic required for that kind of work," he says.

"I knew some friends from Penn, including from the DP, who had worked or were working for the Clinton Health Access Initiative, and discovered that the organization emphasized a lot of the things that I liked from consulting, and applied them to improving global health. I also liked the idea of being abroad for a time, though I definitely was not thinking of Swaziland when I thought of 'abroad.' "

Former President Bill Clinton launched the Clinton Health Access Initiative in 2002 with the initial goal of stopping the spread of HIV and AIDS in the Third World. The organization has broadened its mission since then, but AIDS and HIV remain a focus.

Young has been in Swaziland since 2010, initially working there and in Botswana. He now works exclusively in Swaziland, helping the Health Ministry to increase the quality and availability of medicines, with a special emphasis on drugs to combat HIV and AIDS, a scourge in many African nations including Swaziland.

"As I look back over the last two years, it's clear that the Ministry of Health has made big strides, and that we've been a big part of it," he says.

One metric: Nearly 77,000 residents now receive anti-retroviral medicine every day, a 66 percent increase in two years. Most take one pill a day, as opposed to the old regimen of several pills.

Still, the job is not without its frustrations.

"I think that is true any place where you are an advisor, rather than a 'doer,' " he said. "Partnering with government means we work at their request, and that can mean working at a slower pace than we might hope, or having to build wide consensus for decisions, which can be time consuming."

Young lives in Swaziland's capital and describes life there as "quite nice, actually."

"It's a peaceful country that shares a border with South Africa and Monzambique. South Africa has pretty much everything you'd need to buy, and most of that is imported into Swaziland. The poverty in Swaziland is hidden by the infrastructure, actually. The roads and electricity and even the Internet are pretty good. So definitely, it's not hard living."

Young says he likely will leave Swaziland in the next several months to take a new position with the Clinton Health Access Initiative. "I'm hoping to stay on the continent somewhere but I am considering global roles, as well."

-- Joel Siegel

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