Geeking out on Global Development

Five surprises from a day with PSI

Editor’s note: Earlier this year, PSI held a contest for an all-expense paid trip to Washington to spend a day with staff and field experts, learning about the organization’s work and its approaches to solving some of the world’s most health pressing problems.

by Jennifer Iacovelli Barbour

I recently had the honor of visiting a scorching hot Washington, DC, to spend the day at PSI’s headquarters. Though it’s hard to leave Maine in the summer, I was elated to win their contest, which invited global citizens to enter for the opportunity to explore the “leading-edge thinking for doing international development differently” with PSI experts.

My day was jam-packed with meetings and presentations with several members of PSI’s staff. I also had the opportunity to visit the USAID office for a presentation on PSI’s family planning programs in Madagascar. I have to admit, it was fun to geek out on global development for the day.

I was familiar with PSI, but I found out quickly that my knowledge of PSI barely scratched the surface of the work they do worldwide.

Here are 5 highlights, which were also somewhat surprising to me, during my visit:

  1. Sarah drives everything at PSI. I heard a lot about “Sarah” during my visit with PSI. Various staff members mentioned her as if she were a good friend everyone knew. During the presentation USAID office, Sarah’s name changed to Hanta. Though the name may change depending on the country served, Sarah is the person that PSI serves. Without knowledge of who Sarah is and what she needs, PSI can’t deliver the appropriate services. As a marketer myself, I really liked this approach. Everyone at PSI works for Sarah, even when Sarah is a sex worker. With nearly 9,000 staff in over 60 countries, it was refreshing to see all that PSI does broken down to one person.
  2. Franchising isn’t just for fast food restaurants. Perhaps one of the most surprising concepts introduced to me during my trip was that of social franchising. I had never heard of social franchising, but it now seems so simple and innovative to me. The idea is to use traditional commercial franchising strategies in the nonprofit sector in order to expand access to high quality, affordable healthcare. As it was explained to me by Marshall Stowell, PSI’s Director of External Relations and Communications, over breakfast, the impact can be much greater if we treat people in all-encompassing health clinics versus treating diseases and other health problems vertically.
  3. There’s more to family planning than birth control. I’ve written about newborn and maternal health quite a bit, but I have to admit that I haven’t put a whole lot of thought to all that encompassed family planning. On a whim, I asked my Facebook friends what they thought of when they heard family planning and received a big range of answers (probably worthy of a future blog post). As Jen Pope, PSI’s Director of Sexual, Reproductive Health and TB, explained to me, there are a lot of barriers to family planning including side effects to contraceptives, community beliefs, and lack of training for health care workers. Family planning programs are going to differ depending on the country and culture in which they are offered. Reaching out to the right audience with the right message and methods are key to breaking barriers.
  4. Partnerships are key to future success in global development. As I write that out, it’s not so much a surprise as it is a revelation. Working locally in Maine in the nonprofit sector, I see the importance of organizations working together in order to ensure success and survival. My day with PSI gave me the opportunity to understand global development on a much broader level. I heard about how it is becoming far more common, and even required by funders, for the private and public sector to work together. I learned that while PSI is large, they are also very de-centralized, helping them to tap into local markets. As a business-minded NGO, they look to creating sustainable “shared value partnerships” that build markets while also addressing crucial health issues. Ultimately, the goal with these partnerships is to keep Sarah healthy.
  5. There are a lot of condoms in the PSI office! As exhausted and overloaded as I was by the end of my fun and fact-filled day with PSI, I have to admit the amount of condoms seen in the office made me giggle a little. I was actually pre-warned that I would see many condoms in the office. This didn’t bother me, of course, since I was aware that PSI is known for their work in reproductive health and condoms in particular. Rena, PSI’s Technical Advisor for Sexual, Reproductive Health and TB, talked to me about how PSI was “making condoms cool” around the globe and shared with me her box of branded condoms and marketing products that went along with them. Even the CEO of PSI, Karl Hofmann, offered me a condom after a wonderful conversation over coffee. (The coffee conversation, not the condoms, was a big highlight from my trip as well!) As Rena noted, it’s important to normalize the conversation around condoms in order to be truly effective.

Though I “won” the contest, I was honored to have gone to Washington, DC, and visit with some of the amazing people behind PSI. I can call myself a supporter of their work and look forward to seeing and learning more from them.

Photo: Condoms in the PSI office. (Credit: Jennifer Iacovelli Barbour)