The annual Jakes Gerwel Award honours graduates of the University of the Western Cape’s (UWC) School of Public Health whose leadership in research or practice has led to significant improvements in public health. And few recipients have fit the bill more than Dr Amir Aman, public health reformer and Ethiopian Minister of Health, who received his Award at the UWC Summer Graduation Ceremony on 14 December 2018.
As a graduate of that School, Dr Aman has lived out those ideals and is now spearheading the health sector transformation plan for Ethiopia.
When he first registered for his Master of Public Health at UWC in 2011, he was 25 years old, and was serving as hospital director of a regional hospital in Ethiopia. Through his studies and the research he did for a thesis on how to retain community health workers, Dr Aman recognised he could have a far greater impact on the health of all Ethiopians than he was achieving as a hospital director.
“It was at the University of the Western Cape here in South Africa that I felt myself being molded as a public health expert and public servant - which solidified my commitment to public service,” said Dr Aman during an interview at UWC in 2017. “The experience made me rethink everything.”
By the time he graduated in March 2013, he was the Deputy Minister of Health in the Operations Sections of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia - at the age of 27, the youngest deputy minister in the country.
“For me, getting into a public health profession was a calling, rather than a run of the mill career to make a living,” Dr Aman said during a commencement speech delivered at the graduation ceremony. “It was after having attained a degree in medicine that I decided to pursue a master’s degree in public health here at UWC because I committed myself to engaging in public service and decided to become a public servant. I have never regretted this decision - actually, it has been very fulfilling!”
His research centred around how to retain community health workers - and the degree convinced him that he could do more for his country’s medical profession. He requested a transfer to the Ministry of Health’s human resources department.
The Ethiopian Example: Public Health Research In Practice And Policy
Dr Aman delivered a lecture on Ethiopia: Health Sector Policy and Practice at the School of Public Health after the graduation ceremony, highlighting some of the challenges faced and (to some extent) overcome during his tenure.
The lecture highlighted Ethiopia's experience in achieving impact through homegrown community health programmes and primary health care (PHC). He stressed the possibility of realising universal health coverage through PHC. Dr Aman noted that 90% of the UN's Millennium Development Goals Development Goals achievements of the country are attributable to Health Extension Workers, who are all remunerated and are part of the civil service. Dr Amir further discussed the country-led policies and partnerships with donors that are meant to strengthen systems and prevent the proliferation of vertical programmes.
Dr Aman has received much recognition and many accolades, including the UWC Chancellor’s Award for Outstanding Alumni, for his role in implementing the country’s health sector transformation plan by strengthening district health systems, improving quality of care, and taking leadership with regard to leading reforms on health care financing, human resources, health information, technology and infrastructure.
“Dr Aman is an inspiration to the youth in the country. His work demonstrates that powered with education and commitment to public service, youth can be a powerful force in the transformation of their countries,” SOPH researcher Woldekidan Amde said, reading his award citation.
“And so UWC and the School of Public Health are enormously proud to not only be associated with such an inspirational and recognised visionary and leader in health systems development in Africa, but to indeed feel that we have made a small contribution to his vision and leadership.”
Dr Amir is acclaimed for championing and inspiring a new generation of health professionals through dedicated public service and inspiring volunteerism.
“Life in public service in particular is fraught with highs and lows, and sometimes the lows outnumber the highs,” he said. “But the trick is to manage the good with the bad and to know that the journey is as important as the outcome, and on those days when things look bleak to understand that there will be better days ahead.”