Dressed in military fatigues, al-Assad greeted Jim Grant with a reserved handshake. They sat side by side in slightly angled chairs. Woodhouse and al-Assad’s aide sat behind them. Interpreters lingered nearby. Coffee was served in small cups.
With a big forehead, sharp chin, thin mustache, and a stern bearing, al-Assad did not give away much. He wore a placid “poker face,” Woodhouse recalls.
As he looked at his dour host, Grant’s face began to glow with sudden intensity. He was “almost like a madman,” says Woodhouse, with the “eyes of a Rasputin.”
Then, without any warning, he let loose a whopper.
“Mr. President,” he said, “how would you like to beat the Turks?”
There was a tinge of mischievous excitement in Grant’s voice, as though he were asking the president of Syria to help him pull off a really great prank.
Al-Assad’s poker face thawed instantly. His gaze snapped sharply onto Grant.
Woodhouse was shocked and appalled by what his boss said. But he also understood that objective number one had been achieved: Grant had commandeered the president’s attention. Now he had to keep it.
Al-Assad finally replied: “I thought you were the UNICEF executive director.”
In other words, Isn’t that a wildly inappropriate thing for you to say?
Sounding perturbed, he added, “What do you mean, ‘Do I want to beat the Turks?’”
Grant first answered, “Yes, I am.” Then without missing a beat, he told al-Assad that “your former colonial master during the Ottoman Empire days” had recently immunized the majority of its children against several killer diseases.
He likely smiled — his quick, gotcha grin — then continued. Beginning his sentence, “I’m sure, Mr. President,” he egged al- Assad on and said he knew he could do even better than Turkey.
Reminding Syria’s dictator of the country’s former overlords was risky at best. Such a tart comment could have gotten Grant and Woodhouse thrown out of the country. What of the immunization campaign then?
But al-Assad did not throw them out or react at all adversely. Instead he listened. Grant began to describe what Turkey had achieved, how such a big country had mobilized its entire population against considerable obstacles.
At the time, according to WHO estimates, immunization coverage for one-year-olds in Syria was between 27 and 29 percent for polio, measles, and the third dose of DPT; for the tuberculosis vaccine, it was higher, at 53 percent. As many as tens of thousands of young lives were lost every year, simply because most Syrian kids were not immunized.
Earlier, Woodhouse had asked Grant why he was focusing so many of UNICEF’s resources on immunization. Grant cited a lesson he had learned while working for President John F. Kennedy as deputy assistant secretary of state in the early 1960s. What Kennedy had taught him, he said, was not to hit complex problems head-on. Instead, envision the problem as a wall of bricks. “Try to identify a few bricks — if you take them out, the wall will collapse by itself,” Grant had said. “I see immunization as one of those bricks.” Immunize a country’s kids, and the wall of ill health, early death, misery, and lack of services will start to crumble.
As al-Assad soaked up Grant’s story, the UNICEF leader laid on a little flattery and began to drop a few more crumbs to entice him farther down the path. “I know you can beat the Turks,” he said. “I know you’re a strong president. Once you decide to do something, it will get done. You are in charge of your government in a big way, and I’m convinced you could mobilize the country.”
Woodhouse realized that al-Assad was beginning to grasp how all of this could advance his own position. The president “could immediately see there would be some political benefit for Hafez al-Assad,” recalls Woodhouse, “if he could show the Syrian people he had the power to do good for the majority, and at the same time, beat the old colonial powers, the Ottoman Empire.”
The president was sold. “Tell me more, Mr. Grant. What do I need to do?”
Grant ticked off what would be required: making sure the entire population knew about the immunization schedule, mobilizing health staff throughout the country, setting up the cold chain, positioning vaccines, syringes, and equipment.
Speaking to his aide, al-Assad then commanded: “Call the minister of health immediately. Call the minister of information immediately. Call the minister of defense immediately.”
The ministers appeared within minutes. Grant repeated, with more detail, what needed to happen. Then gesturing toward Woodhouse, he said, “This young guy, Woodhouse, will be happy to work with any committee of people you put together to make sure that all the planning is done properly.”
Within the next three months, Syria launched an immunization campaign. UNICEF provided vaccines, equipment, coordination, training, and other assistance. And after all the results were tallied, Syria’s immunization coverage had doubled and, in some cases, nearly tripled in the space of one year. Polio coverage for one-year-olds jumped from 29 percent to 86 percent, DPT3 shot from 29 percent to 86 percent, measles rose from 27 percent to 64 percent, and the tuberculosis vaccine went from 53 percent to 98 percent. In every category except measles, according to 1986 estimates, it had done just what Grant suggested: it had beaten Turkey. For measles coverage, the countries were exactly tied at 64 percent.
Woodhouse was “blown away” by Grant’s ability to persuade a military dictator to do something good for children. His boss’s strategy, Woodhouse learned, was not to appeal to global leaders’ compassion or empathy, but rather to identify their concerns and then piggyback UNICEF’s agenda on those concerns. This tactic was employed all over the globe, with miserable despots and enlightened statesmen, government generals and rebel commanders, democratically elected presidents and calcified monarchs — with whoever held the levers of power. He came to these meetings armed with plenty of props — growth charts, polio droppers, oral rehydration packets — but also often with more knowledge about the country’s children than the leaders themselves possessed.
Folded up in his pocket, Grant sometimes carried the table of contents of a book entitled Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In, coauthored by his longtime friend Roger Fisher, and William Ury. Among the entries: “Don’t Bargain Over Positions,” “Separate the PEOPLE from the Problem,” “Focus on INTERESTS, Not Positions,” “Invent OPTIONS for Mutual Gain,” “Insist on Using Objective CRITERIA.” Grant did all of these things, but his method of persuasion was often even simpler: find that one weak point, that one critical brick that could be plucked from the wall.
In Morocco, after the UNICEF representative could not gain any traction with the administration of the autocratic King Hassan II, Grant made a visit to the North African country. According to former UNICEF program director Dr. Nyi Nyi, who heard accounts of the meeting from Grant and a Moroccan government official, the encounter began as a one-way lecture by the king. Grant politely listened as the king, known for his eloquence and political dexterity, spoke at length of the greatness of his country. Morocco, he told Grant, bore many similarities to its former colonial ruler, France. It was, in fact, “France south of the Mediterranean,” he said.
When the king paused to take a sip of water, Grant interjected: “Your Majesty, what you say is true, except for one thing.” The king’s curiosity was piqued. “And what could that be?” he asked.
“Your children die at a rate ten times that of France.”
The king looked at Grant. He turned to his health minister, who sat nearby. “Is that true?” The health minister confirmed that, unfortunately, what the head of UNICEF said was indeed correct. Apparently this information had never been shared with the king until now.
“We can’t accept that,” the king proclaimed. “Do whatever Mr. Grant wants us to do.”
The staff from the Moroccan Ministry of Health visited UNICEF headquarters in New York, where Nyi Nyi welcomed them. An immunization campaign was launched. The country’s coverage rates for polio, DPT3, and tuberculosis would eventually climb from none at all in 1980 to more than 80 percent by 1990, according to WHO estimates. Coverage for measles would reach 79 percent.
“He knew what would strike a chord,” says Nyi Nyi. “He would play one country against another.”
He was also utterly shameless, never missing an opportunity to make his pitch, no matter how tacky or inappropriate. In the Dominican Republic, after an official field visit in 1985, President Salvador Jorge Blanco hosted an august state dinner in Grant’s honor. He was asked to make a speech. On the stage with Grant stood the president, wearing an expensive-looking suit, and three or four men in full military regalia—possibly generals or bodyguards. Grant began to tell the crowd of several hundred people what the Dominican Republic could do to save more children. About halfway through his speech, he stopped. According to Peter Adamson, who had accompanied him, he then reached into his pocket and pulled out a ribbon of red and blue stickers. Printed on each were the words child survival revolution. He walked over to President Blanco and the men surrounding him, peeled off some stickers, and began applying them liberally on the president’s suit and the men’s uniforms. “I am making you five-star generals of the child survival revolution!” Grant announced cheerfully.
President Blanco smiled, perhaps stunned.
Back at the hotel, Ethel chided, “Jim, you are such a ham.” Adamson says it is hard to imagine any other international leader getting away with a stunt that might well have been perceived as “tactless at best” and possibly even offensive. “Yet, because of who he was,” Adamson says, “it was fine.”
Grant’s motives were so obvious, he adds, that even his greatest critics could not dispute his genuineness. Because everyone knew that all his enthusiasm, all his marketing ploys, all his badgering and berating — that it was never about him. It was always about saving kids. There was no ulterior motive, no hidden agenda.
In India, during the mid-to-late 1980s, the government was ambivalent toward outsiders promising external aid or bilateral support, according to former Indian government official Gourisankar Ghosh. He is aware of one notable exception. “The only person who was not only well received, but also warmly received—starting from the prime minister down to state governments — was Jim Grant,” says Ghosh, who would go on to work for UNICEF. “Even if India had a visit by the UN secretary general, it would not create as much headline news as a visit by Jim Grant.”
Samora Machel, the revered African freedom fighter who had liberated Mozambique from Portuguese rule in 1975, trusted Grant so much that he once agreed to a sudden and, some might say, wildly unreasonable request. On the way into the heavily guarded presidential palace in Maputo, the country’s capital, to see Machel, Grant clutched a briefcase under his arm. UNICEF’s Mozambique representative Marta Mauras advised Grant to leave the briefcase behind — security was too tight.
“Jim, you cannot take that,” said Mauras, an assertive Chilean sociologist. “It’s going to be taken away.”
Grant ignored her. He didn’t answer, didn’t even look at her. Then, suddenly, like a fugitive trying to ditch his parole officer, he bolted. Briefcase under arm, he darted into the palace. He rushed past the guards, as Mauras and UNICEF staffer Carl Tinstman ran behind him. Somehow, he made it inside.
Something in that briefcase was very important, and Mauras and Tinstman would soon find out what it was.
President Machel was waiting for them on a long, red velvet couch with four cushions, surrounded by several aides, an interpreter, and a government minister. Bearded and in military garb, the stout, former rebel leader commanded a striking presence. Machel was a Marxist and his philosophy, in one significant way, mirrored Grant’s: both men believed that the benefits of society should be made available to all. A vociferous critic of the evils of colonialism and apartheid, Machel once famously remarked, according to the New York Times: “The rich man’s dog gets more in the way of vaccination, medicine and medical care than do the workers upon whom the rich man’s wealth is built.”
Grant likely would have agreed.
Mozambique was then throttled by a nasty civil conflict that pitted the ruthless Renamo rebels (backed by the apartheid government in South Africa and formerly by white-ruled Rhodesia) against Machel’s government. Horrific human rights abuses abounded, most of them committed by the Renamo rebels. But Machel’s sense of justice was marred by his own despotic tendencies. According to Human Rights Watch, the military leader’s postcolonial regime subjected dissidents to re-education camps and set up a secret police force that tortured prisoners and carried out extrajudicial executions.
Machel stood up to greet Grant. The head of UNICEF was then signaled by an aide to sit in a nearby chair, also upholstered in red velvet. Grant proceeded to give his child survival spiel and brandished a packet of oral rehydration salts as an interpreter translated his words into Portuguese (though Machel was rumored to understand and speak English). Then Grant said, “Mr. President, I have a favor to ask you.”
“Yes?” said Machel.
He opened his briefcase. As if triggered by the snapping motion, Machel’s aides stood up. No one had mentioned what was in that briefcase, and they now appeared concerned.
Grant pulled out a folder. Inside it was a document, two or three pages long.
As Tinstman recalls, Grant then said, “I have taken the liberty of developing this formal agreement for us to sign. If it’s all right with you, perhaps we can both sign it right now.”
According to Mauras, Grant then explained that it was a “commitment for all children.”
This was news to Mauras. Grant hadn’t said a word to her about the agreement before this meeting. Ostensibly, he had kept it secret to avoid sounding off alarm bells at the presidential palace. He wanted to walk out with a signature. He didn’t want to wait for vetting and bureaucratic approval.
The president’s aides, in the words of Carl Tinstman, “went ape shit.”
Frowns formed on their faces, and their heads shook vigorously. An aide bent down and whispered in Machel’s ear. “We could tell by the body language...that Samora Machel was being told not to sign it,” says Tinstman.
Which was not at all bad advice. For one thing, the document was in English, not Portuguese. And, as the minister pointed out, “We haven’t seen it. We need to read it first.”
Not an unreasonable demand.
At this point, Grant stood up and, “against all protocol,” says Mauras, he asked Machel to make room for him on the couch. The president and father of independent Mozambique obliged and scooted over. Grant sat down next to Machel, as though he were a family friend, and handed him the document.
Tinstman remembers that Machel raised his eyebrows, as an aide whispered insistently in his ear. The president then held up the document and glanced at it but did not take time to read it. Mauras notes that Machel needed glasses to read anyway, and he wasn’t wearing any.
Then Machel looked at Grant. “This is a good thing for me and my country and the country’s children?” he asked.
“Absolutely, Mr. President, of course,” Grant said.
That was all it took. “I will sign,” said Machel. And against the advice of all his aides, he did just that.
Grant peered down to inspect the signature and noticed that Machel had only signed his first name, “Samora,” in big, sweeping script.
“Mr. President,” Grant said, “you have to sign the full signature.”
This last request Machel refused. He told Grant: “There is only one Samora in the whole world.”
Excerpted from A Mighty Purpose: How Jim Grant Sold the World on Saving Its Children by Adam Fifield. Copyright © 2015 by Other Press. Reprinted by Permission