Dawit Bisrat, a seasoned health professional with over a decade of international experience in the field, has been charged to serve as director of Vital Strategies recently opened office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia—our sixth global office.
Dawit first joined Vital several years ago as the Ethiopia country representative for Resolve to Save Lives. In recent months, he has led our COVID-19 response in the country. Before joining Vital, Dawit was a post-graduate associate with the Yale Global Health Leadership Institute at the National University of Rwanda. He also previously managed the Ethiopia Hospitals Management Initiative, led the Ethiopian Hospitals Alliance for Quality initiative, which is regarded as one of the best government-driven initiatives in Ethiopia, and worked with the primary health care unit of the Clinton Health Access Initiative.
We sat down with Dawit to discuss what he is most looking forward to about leading the Ethiopia office, why he thinks Vital’s programs are important in tackling persisting health challenges in Ethiopia and his advice for those interested in entering the public health field.
What brought you to the field of public health?
I grew up in Tigray, the northernmost region of Ethiopia. When I was younger, my family lived through both the Ethiopian Civil war and Eritrean-Ethiopian war; long wars where I saw horrible things. The health care system in the aftermath of the war was devastating. I saw people dying from easily preventable diseases mainly because of lack of leadership and governance, especially in rural communities. Very early in my career, I saw encouraging results from public health interventions. That was a turning point for me to join the field of public health. From those experiences, I was driven to live with urgency and purpose and to be part of creating a world where every life is protected and valued.
I also became interested in leadership, especially how leaders can prevent problems that are foreseeable. I believe that good leadership saves lives.
When it came time to go to university, I had wanted to study leadership or management but instead was placed in a program at Ethiopia’s health science and medical school, where I studied nursing and laboratory science. After graduating, I went to work in the university hospital. While at the hospital, I saw many people dying from preventable diseases because of poor management. I would consistently challenge management to insist that we do better. Throughout my public health career that followed, I always asked myself: How can we do better? How can we save more lives?
What excites you the most about the work you do at Vital Strategies?
There has been a lot of funding in Ethiopia for infectious diseases, but much less for road safety, improving data and for tackling noncommunicable diseases. Almost all of our programs at Vital Strategies address these problems that are generally not a central focus of the global health community or that are overlooked in lower- and- middle income countries, such as hypertension and creating healthier food environments through food policy.
I also enjoy working in an organization that has people with such diverse backgrounds and expertise. Working and communicating almost every day on Zoom with new people from different cultures, ethnicities and life experiences gives me a fresh insight into the way I see things. And even though we might be communicating through a screen at times, it always feels like we are a big team with a common goal.
What are you most looking forward to about leading the Ethiopia office?
I believe that our initiatives will bring immense change to many of the major public health problems in Ethiopia, and I am looking forward to leading this charge. Currently, 52% of all preventable deaths in Ethiopia are from noncommunicable diseases and injuries—a problem which has long been overlooked in health care reform. Vital’s programs address the most pressing health problems here in Ethiopia including cardiovascular disease, motor vehicle crashes and access to essential services. By establishing our office here, we will be able to make an even greater impact.
Where do you live and what do you enjoy most about it?
I live in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. Addis is Africa’s diplomatic capital, which creates an opportunity to meet people from all over. I love the ethnic diversity that we have, and the diversity in food—both local (our world-famous cuisine) and international. I have a lot of friends here and love our “13 months” of sunshine, which allows us to spend a lot of time outdoors. We are the third highest altitude capital city in the world, surrounded by majestic hills and mountains.
Who or what inspires you?
I find inspiration in many different people and things. But my grandmother, who all her grandchildren call mama (we call our parents by their names), is a huge inspiration to me. She is a hard worker and good communicator, and above all, a beautiful human being. She can barely write or read but she taught me to be focused, goal-oriented and to adapt to change quickly. I am grateful to have her in my life, and thankful for the lessons she taught me.
What advice would you give to those interested in entering the public health field?
I believe that millions of people are alive today because of public health interventions. That said, there are still many public health problems that persist and many old issues that have yet to be resolved. Noncommunicable diseases and injuries, malnutrition, pandemics and unhealthy lifestyles are still killing tens of millions of people annually—deaths that could be prevented through strong public health measures. Public health should keep evolving to solve old problems with new solutions. That requires as many public health professionals as possible; devoted people who are willing to innovate. I encourage people to pursue a career in public health to help us create a world where people are healthier, safer and have a better quality of life.
My other piece of advice is to always listen to the people that you are working on designing interventions for. I learned this earlier on in my career when working on a rural maternal health initiative. Interventions are not one-size-fits-all and to be effective they need to be catered to what people need.
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About Vital Strategies
Vital Strategies is a global health organization that believes every person should be protected by a strong public health system. We work with governments and civil society in 73 countries to design and implement evidence-based strategies that tackle their most pressing public health problems. Our goal is to see governments adopt promising interventions at scale as rapidly as possible.