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ARPA-E might be my favorite obscure government agency.

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We’re finally learning why countries excel at saving lives

A new program is spreading the word about the most successful approaches to health.


Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve tackled every big new problem the same way: by starting off with two questions. I used this technique at Microsoft, and I still use it today. I ask these questions literally every week about COVID-19.

Here they are: Who has dealt with this problem well? And what can we learn from them?

They seem like obvious questions, but sometimes it's surprisingly hard to find the answers—especially when it comes to global health. There are low- and middle-income countries that have made huge leaps in, for example, delivering vaccines or ending malnutrition. But anyone who wants to identify those countries, find out how they did it, and apply the lessons in their own country would have their work cut out for them.

In sports, every coach is able to study the most successful teams and figure out what they’re doing well. There’s no reason that things should be any different when the goal is preventing childhood deaths instead of scoring touchdowns.

That’s why I was eager to be part of a global effort to fill the gap. Over the past three years, health experts and organizations from countries at every income level (including the Gates Foundation) have come together to find out who has made the most progress on certain health problems, identify what made them so successful, and help others put these lessons into action.

The result of all this effort—the Exemplars in Global Health program—launched earlier this year. If you want to know which countries have made the most progress with limited resources, Exemplars is a great place to start.

For now, Exemplars focuses on five areas: under-five mortality; vaccine delivery; the role of community health workers; epidemic preparedness and response; and childhood stunting (the reduction in physical and mental development caused by poor nutrition). The team will be adding other areas, including newborn and maternal mortality, family planning, maternal anemia, and primary health care systems.

The Exemplars team has scoured the world for the best performers and worked with experts in those countries to find out what worked so well. For example, they identified seven countries that have excelled at reducing the number of children who die before their fifth birthday: Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Nepal, Peru, Rwanda, and Senegal. The Exemplars website has a profile of each country, detailing insights from its work that other countries could learn from.

Bangladesh—whose childhood mortality rate dropped 56 percent between 2000 and 2015—used data, research, and testing especially well, and empowered women to make decisions about their children’s health. Peru, which achieved roughly the same decline as Bangladesh, conducted local studies to identify interventions that might suit specific communities. All seven countries built up strong community health systems and made specific efforts to close the equity gap by reaching the poorest people.

Of course, not all lessons can be applied in the same way everywhere. What works in one country may not work exactly the same way in another. And it is not always obvious how to implement big changes in national health systems, which are very complex and require a lot of coordination among the government, the private sector, and non-profits.

“We’re not interested in simply getting the information out there—we want to help drive change.”

Recognizing these challenges, the Exemplars program is much more than a website. There is also a community of global and in-country experts ready to help countries make the case for investing in the most effective programs and figure out how to adapt the lessons to their particular needs. We’re not interested in simply getting the information out there—we want to help drive change.

Our hope is to connect with decisionmakers: people who work in the governments of low- and middle-income countries, at development agencies like America’s USAID and the World Bank, and at organizations that implement health programs. Exemplars is all about figuring out how to improve health care based on evidence of what works. It will help governments use time and money more efficiently—and with the COVID-19 pandemic, there has never been a greater need to get the most impact out of every dollar spent.

I’m grateful to all the people in governments, academia, and non-profits who made the Exemplars program possible. We all started out with one goal in mind: to accelerate the progress in improving health, so that the poorest countries don't have 20 times the childhood death rate of the richest ones. I think Exemplars is a great resource that will spread success stories so even countries with very little money can benefit. And that will, ultimately, save lives.