Behind the scenes in global public health

Shirley Bennett, MPP 2007, prepares the groundwork to fight Malaria, TB and HIV/AIDS.

When Shirley Bennett began her graduate studies in 2005, the Hertie School ­in Berlin was just getting off the ground. There were 30 people in that first Master of Public Policy cohort. They had almost every class together in just one room at the Hausvogteiplatz, a square in the centre of East Berlin surrounded by construction sites.

“It was very intense,” she says. “But by the second year, there were 50 more students and suddenly the university dramatically increased in size.” Today, its network of over 1,000 graduates spans the globe, and the school offers master’s degrees in public policy and international affairs as well as doctoral and executive programmes.

Having previously worked in South Africa dealing with the AIDS epidemic, Shirley was aiming for a job in public health management. Upon graduating, she set off for Geneva, a global centre of public health initiatives, armed with a list of 10 contacts from her professors at the Hertie School.

Some assiduous networking led to a 59-day contract at the World Health Organisation (WHO), which kicked off her ten-year career in global health, governance and project management. From there, Shirley went to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and then to the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS). Today, she’s a Senior Program Manager at Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.

One of her favourite courses at the Hertie School turned out to be one of the most useful for her current job – a mock United Nations conference with working groups and a press conference.

“We did presentations in different forums. It was really interesting to see how the conversations played out depending on the situation. That was probably the truest to life in terms of how decisions happen – lots of conversations happened in the corridors during the coffee break and that’s absolutely how it is – over coffee,” she says.

At Gavi, Shirley is involved in funding the pilot for a malaria vaccine in three countries. Her job is to shape the process for the three participating funding organisations to work together, a complicated negotiation that means taking into account various requirements of each institution. “Right now, we’re trying to negotiate a memorandum of understanding about how we’ll approach decision-making,” Shirley says.

Dealing with colleagues who come from different educational, professional and cultural backgrounds is part of the job. Looking back, she says this mirrors her experiences in the MPP programme. “I had done sociology and American politics as an undergraduate, and the guy next to me had done economics. We were talking about the same problem, but using different language – and I’m not talking about English-German, but different terminology,” Shirley remembers. “People approach problems in different ways because of their background. They use different words in different ways to explain a problem. So the ability to start to understand a range of stakeholders – I think that’s probably the most useful skill.”

Being a generalist, rather than a specialist like doctors or technicians she works with, has also been an asset. In her previous job at the WHO, she managed the transition the Stop TB Partnership – a partnership that brings together different actors working in the TB space from the WHO to another UN agency, UNOPS. This involved moving personnel, contracts, grants, and tangible and intangible assets from one agency to another.

“It was a separation and a merger at the same time,” she says – one that she had just six months to accomplish. Shirley was involved in every aspect of this – “from what happens to the copyright of the publications we’ve published, to what happens to the computer licenses, to what type of desks we want – it was completely wholistic. That’s where the Hertie (School) came in,” she says: negotiating, understanding how to structure legal arguments, communicating and putting processes in place for making decisions efficiently.

“My role for many years was as a governance officer,” Shirley says. Vital to this was “the concept of good governance, which is about trying to balance efficiency and effectiveness and transparency. “

Geneva has been a great place for her career to unfold over the last decade, but it doesn’t quite match the quirkiness of Berlin. All kinds of amazing things can happen in this “fabulous” city, she says.

“One night I was out and there was a camel loose on the Pappelallee. It had a metal chain hanging from it’s mouth, so I caught it and handed it over to a policeman” who was standing nearby, she remembers with a laugh.

She’s glad she took a chance on the Hertie School in its early days. Shirley’s advice to students when they’re pounding the pavement for jobs: don’t be afraid to seize opportunities...or a camel by the bit....