Interview with the FOUNDER- Jennifer Douglas Abubakar PhD

We sat down with Jennifer Douglas Abubakar, the founder of Gede Foundation and wife of Nigeria’s former Vice President, Atiku Abubakar, for an extended interview on her philanthropic work with Gede Foundation.

What’s philanthropy to you? How would you define it?

Philanthropy is helping the less privileged through a worthy cause by devoting time, resources or advocate for a good cause that would benefit the society. In general, contributing to a greater good for the benefit of human kind.

Why did you set up the Gede Foundation?

Gede Foundation began in 2002 as one of the pioneer non-governmental organizations to cater to under-served and highly stigmatized populations. Part of our fundamental objective when we started was to provide a one-stop shop for high quality treatment and care in HIV/AIDS, training, advocacy and research.

In addition to serving those infected with HIV, I would like to add that one of Gede’s accomplishments is seeing that over 5,000 orphans and vulnerable children in Nigeria got back into schools, while others learnt marketable skills as a foundation to productive lives. Without Gede and our vision for orphans in the beginning, the likes of World Bank, Federal Ministry of Women Affairs, USAID (SIDHAS), UNICEM and Addax Petroleum Foundation wouldn’t have been confident to invest huge amount into OVC programmes using Gede as grants recipient.

Today, Gede’s drive to be constantly at the cutting edge of under-served and highly stigmatized health burdens, has recently seen the Foundation embrace and address growing concerns over mental health and its general impact not only with people living with HIV/AIDS, but the general population at large.

What difference would you say the foundation has made? What have its biggest accomplishments been, in your opinion?

We often hear people say that Gede Foundation was a trailblazer in the area of HIV Treatment and Care delivery in the country for the past decade. To some extent I think we have set high quality standards to which clients always refer to, in terms of access to confidential and personalized HIV management. For me, this is something worth celebrating.

Gede’s Managing Director, John Minto has expressed that Gede exists to be a ‘game changing’ agency within under-served and stigmatized health burdens and all of our work is geared to achieving practical and positive change for those we serve at the community level. Over the decade during which the Foundation has been working in Nigeria, it has played a significant leadership role in putting two major stigmatized health burdens on the map.

In running Abuja’s first one-stop HIV-AIDS clinic, Gede revolutionized the approach to care and support by taking an holistic view of the needs of those suffering from HIV-AIDS, offering clients access to testing, counseling, medical and pharmacy services at a single site delivered through high quality and client-centered expertise. No other agency in 2003 approached care and support in this way and, now, it is the norm.

Gede is now playing the major leadership role in bringing to light the debilitating impact of depression and alcohol abuse on people living with HIV-AIDS. With an estimated 40% of all people living with HIV-AIDS also suffering from these little discussed yet widely experienced conditions, Gede is pioneering work which will show their prevalence and impact, stimulate and support mental health support groups at the community level and secure long term resource commitments from government to provide appropriate care and support.

Gede is proud of the fact that due to its leadership and advocacy work, government agencies and development organizations are starting to place mental health squarely within their HIV-AIDS care and support regimes. Prior to Gede’s intervention, these conditions were practically invisible, yet remained crippling in their impact.

We are also known for our research work. Research has the aim of developing the Foundation’s role as a ‘learning’ organization and provides the material through which Gede amplifies the voice of those suffering from the impact of under-served and stigmatized health burdens.

Ten years from now what would you like the foundation to have accomplished?

The list of under-served and stigmatized health burdens is lengthy – depression, alcohol abuse, obesity, teenage suicide, sexually transmitted infections and even domestic violence – the list goes on. However, they all suffer from the same problems – a lack of information about their prevalence and impact; no community based care and support networks; little government recognition of their importance, and consequently few resources allocated for stigma reduction, treatment and care; equally limited recognition by development donors and agencies that a problem even exists.

People suffering from stigmatized health burdens therefore feel a sense of stigmatization, isolation, despondency and loneliness – which often make their conditions worse. Ten years from now, I want tens of thousands of such people and their carers to have worked with Gede to find their voice and to convincingly advocate for changes which bring their under-served and stigmatized health burdens out of the shadows in ways which make real and practical changes to the care and support they receive at the community level.

I would like to quote Gede’s Director of Administration, Jeremy Bogolosa, that Gede Foundation is an advocate for the “underdogs” of social/health issues. We encourage the marginalized population directly affected by mental health disorders (or other stigmatized and under-served health burdens that we will identify in the future) to show that they care and influence the rest of the world to listen and find that reason why they should care. For it is only when people care that they act responsibly.

What advice would you give to Nigerians looking to set up a philanthropic organization?

  • You must strive to do it unconditionally and without prejudices, and keep in mind that it is not an arena to raise money for yourself, it is the business of ‘non-profit’.
  • Don’t see it as a personal promotional tool, but instead something for a good cause and betterment of the community.
  • Be clear on your goals & objectives
  • Set the agenda; do not allow others do it for you
  • Get the funding in place
  • Promote transparency and accountability

Who are your role models in philanthropy – in Nigeria and abroad?

  1. Angelina Jolie is quite an inspiration, in addition to Bill and Melinda Gates.
  2. In Nigeria, my husband, Atiku Abubakar on his part, is a true unheralded philanthropist. He supports so many causes quietly and has done much that is not publicized
  3. All those silent workers who work diligently to better the lives of their community even donating from their own pocket to those less fortunate. I can name the staff of Gede, Dr. Cynthia Ticao and John Minto who leave their families in United States and United kingdom to serve in Nigeria for 6 to 8 months in the year, Godwin Etim and Jeremy Boglosa who are personally sponsoring orphans in school, and many of the other unsung heroes whom we work with on a daily basis who have answered the call to serve, they are my role models. They give us the strength through their exemplary devotion to the less fortunate to continue our work even in the face of daunting challenges.

What would you say are the biggest challenges facing non-profit organizations and initiatives in Nigeria?

  • Little or no funding for good programs
  • Funding going mostly to bigger organizations
  • Unrealistic expectations on the part of funders and donors
  • Lack of concrete planning and goal-setting
  • Lack of coordination
  • Lack of institutional transparency and accountability
  • Absence of a proper regulatory framework
  • The misconception that philanthropy is only for affluent individuals
  • Absence of a strong tradition of structured philanthropy

How can private philanthropic organizations support one another in Nigeria?

  • We should act as role models for others by promoting transparency
  • We should form umbrella and watchdog organizations to hold one another to account
  • We should learn to develop linkages with other organizations when applying for funding and in program implementation and campaigns
  • We should seek to involve civil society and grassroots organizations in programming.

If you had to focus on another field of philanthropy outside of what Gede is currently involved with (mental health), what would it be?

There are so many other causes I’d like to be involved in, especially because I am internationalist in outlook, and would like to bring several causes onto the world stage, just like Angelina Jolie is spotlighting important issues across the globe. But if I had to choose just one cause outside of mental health, it’d be to promote the importance of education in the development of the individual.