Robert Zinser takes the long view on maternal health in Nigeria
Painting by Ibiyinka Alao
When economist Robert Zinser retired as president for Asia at chemical giant BASF in 1991, his schedule hardly waned. He cofounded what became the Rotarian Action Group for Population Growth and Sustainable Development and serves as its CEO.
The past district governor and member of the Rotary Club of Ludwigshafen-Rheinschanze, Germany, travels frequently to Nigeria, which has the second-highest maternal mortality rate in the world. He has started projects focused on family planning, maternal and child health, and AIDS education, and in 2005, he initiated a five-year, US$3 million pilot project that reached one million women of childbearing age in northern Nigeria.
The core $478,000 Matching Grant project – sponsored by District 9125 (Nigeria) and the Rotary Club of Weissenburg, Germany, with support from the action group – attracted an additional $826,000 from the German government and the Aventis Foundation. Activities such as solar power and water projects, donations of materials including mosquito nets, and cash contributions complemented the effort.
THE ROTARIAN: Why is it so important to keep mothers healthy?
ZINSER: Improving maternal health is not just one of the UN Millennium Development Goals; it may be the most important one. Former Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that if we do not meet it, then we cannot meet the others.
TR: Why are you passionate about this issue?
ZINSER: If you travel in the developing world, walk through slums, and talk to people, you know that the women are often dominated by the men. They are suffering. They lack support. Women cannot be empowered if they can’t make their own choices in antenatal care and child spacing. But if mothers are empowered and healthy, so are their families, leading to an alleviation of poverty and hunger.
TR: What was the main focus of this project?
ZINSER: In Nigeria, 70 percent of births are home deliveries. If the labor goes on too long, a woman can suffer a fistula [an injury that often results in a stillborn baby, causes chronic incontinence, and can lead to social isolation as well as infection, nerve damage, or death]. With fistulas, prevention is the key. We insisted on a comprehensive approach of better antenatal care, and we reduced maternal mortality in the hospitals by 60 percent through quality assurance in obstetrics with data collection, analysis, and benchmarking.
TR: How did the patients respond?
ZINSER: They are so grateful to receive surgery, they are singing when you come. Before, no one helped them. They didn’t even know the injury could be repaired until we started running radio programs showcasing true-to-life stories and community dialogues. We repaired 1,500 fistulas, 500 more than our goal, and added microcredit and vocational training to the pilot project. Many women with this condition had been thrown out of their homes and needed a way to make a living.
TR: Your humanitarian work led to recognition from Nigerian royalty.
ZINSER: There was a “turbaning ceremony” at the emir’s palace in Zaria. The turban is a sign of belonging to the emirate council. Since then, many people in Nigeria call me “Shahon,” which is a high rank, or even “Royal Highness.” Naturally, I was moved. The whole event was a recognition of Rotary’s humanitarian work, and especially of maternal and child health projects.
TR: What’s next for this project?
ZINSER: Scaling up. The time is ripe. Maternal health is in the spotlight because of the UN Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health. We should replicate and publicize this pilot project.
TR: You’re 85 now. What’s next for you?
My friends ask me, “Why don’t you go golfing with us?” They don’t know how my Rotary work benefits me. Recently, a doctor told me there is the age on your passport, and then there is your biological age. He said my biological age is 65. More and more, scientists are advising that if you do good for other people, it will keep you young. When I’m in Africa, I feel I am the right man, at the right time, in the right place.