Q&A: World Economic Forum Africa Co-Chair and END Fund CEO Ellen Agler

We find out about how the END Fund is leading the debate on ending neglected diseases to enable Africa’s prosperity

Q: What inspired you to pursue a career in healthcare?

Ellen Agler, World Economic Forum Africa Co-Chair and END Fund CEO: I began my career as a journalist and while I loved interviewing and storytelling, I found myself getting extremely attached to the stories. I had a real desire to have an impact on the issues on I reporting on.

For example, I was writing a story about a Commission for the Blind facing organisational challenges, and was inspired to volunteer reading books for the blind. My extended investment in stories became such a pattern that an editor suggested that I was in the wrong field, and shortly after I was introduced to the organization Operation Smile and started working with them.

I fully intended to come back to journalism, but the experience completely transformed my world view and sense of what I wanted to do. I’d become addicted to impact, not just diving in and out of stories. Over my career, I’ve now helped to support health programs in over 70 countries, collaborating with similarly driven people across all sectors, and still find the work as rewarding as ever.

Q: How and why did you get involved with END Fund/WEF Africa?

In 2011, I was recruited to consider a role as inaugural CEO of the END Fund, a new fund dedicated to controlling and eliminating neglected tropical diseases that affect over one billion people. Throughout the interview process I read everything I could find about this group of ancient diseases that are completely preventable. It was clear to me that if I wanted to put my energy into doing the greatest good for the greatest number of people, this was an issue I could get excited to lean into and try to help make a difference.

A common thread through these diseases is “neglect,“ but what’s clear is the diseases aren’t neglected, it’s the people that are neglected. A key role of the END Fund is raising awareness of the impact these diseases have on the lives of over 1.5 billion people to help reduce the neglect. We’ve been a part of the WEF community for five years now and it has offered an incredible platform for us to raise awareness about NTDs and promote the idea that the private, public, and civil society sectors all have a part to play in solving some of the greatest challenges of our time.

Some of the most prominent African business leaders in our community firmly believe that ending these diseases is not only the right thing to do from a humanitarian standpoint, but it’s also good for business through directly improving the health, wellbeing, and productivity of the labor force and the consumer base. A platform like WEF Africa enables local and international stakeholders to explore these synergies and identify opportunities to get involved. The opportunity to Co-Chair the World Economic Forum on Africa this year was a great privilege.

Q: Introduce me to the problem of NTDs. What are they and what impact are they having across the continent?

Neglected tropical diseases are a group of chronic and disabling parasitic and bacterial infections which cause long-term suffering for over 1.5 billion people globally. NTDs disable, disfigure, and stigmatise. They persist in impoverished communities where people have limited protection from insects and animals that spread disease, and where access to clean water, medical care, and prevention education is extremely limited.

About 40 percent of the global NTD burden occurs in Africa, affecting over 600 million Africans. The prevalence of these devastating diseases limits the ability of susceptible communities to move towards a future of increased economic opportunity, often making children too ill to attend school and taking adults out of the workforce. Not only is the treatment of these devastating diseases considered a “best buy” in both public health and education, but it is clear that controlling these diseases is key for economic growth and prosperity.

Q: What work is your organisation doing to combat this impact?

The END Fund is the only private philanthropic initiative solely dedicated to ending the five most common NTDs. We grow and engage a community of activist-philanthropists and manage investments for maximum impact. By working in collaboration with governments, NGOs, pharmaceutical companies, and academic partners, we support treatment delivery to those most in need.

This systems approach to understanding, engaging with, and influencing a broad ecosystem of stakeholders within the NTD sector has worked wonders. Since our founding in 2012 through 2018, with our partners, the END Fund has supported the delivery of over 724 million generously donated treatments for NTDs with a value of over $1.3 billion. In addition, over 1.8 million people were trained in NTD control and prevention methods and over 13,000 people benefited from surgeries to treat advanced stages of trachoma and lymphatic filariasis.