Amina Az-Zubair

At the TED Conference in Long Beach, Calif., Amina Az-Zubair smiled and said, “You’re probably wondering, ‘Who’s this lady in the Nigerian clothes with the English accent?’ “

Not exactly -the question was more, “Who’s this lady Bill Gates thinks is brilliant?”

A large crowd had gathered with the same query. TED, a set of talks designed to disseminate “ideas worth spreading,” is known for gathering innovative thinkers. But this particular session, curated by Gates, brought together four people the billionaire philanthropist thought are especially innovative.

Az-Zubair, one of the chosen four, undersold herself as a lady in Nigerian clothes. Back home, she also had one billion dollars and a mandate, as a special assistant to the Nigerian president, to achieve her country’s Millennium Development Goals (MGDs). More importantly, she’s made huge strides toward realizing that set of eight United Nations indicators aimed at eradicating extreme poverty by 2015 -all while giving hope to other African nations that they can move past a calling card of corruption, and into a better future.

We started to see what caught Gates’ attention.

“Progress made (in Nigeria) not only affects tens of millions,” said Gates onstage about the country that represents one fifth of Africa’s population. “It also sets an example for the rest of the continent.”

Az-Zubair was raised in northern Nigeria, the first child of an English mother and a Nigerian father. Part of a small minority of educated girls, she went to England for university. After obtaining her degree, Az-Zubair’s father called her home “to give service to Nigeria.”

The troubled nation of 150 million has a history of conflict and about 70 million people living in poverty. Az-Zubair saw this while criss-crossing the nation designing schools and hospitals. She was disturbed by the rampant corruption that left unfinished water projects in communities and schools with only one textbook to every five children.

In 2000, the new millennium gave birth to the MDGs. Az-Zubair was put in charge of achieving them for her country. The first step was tackling goal eight -developing a global partnership for development. In 2005, the country’s president negotiated debt cancellation, a move that saved Nigeria $1 billion annually in interest payments. Az-Zubair lobbied to have that windfall allocated to her office for the MDGs.

“The international community was very worried that we were going to put this in a black sinkhole,” she says. “But Nigerians were even more worried. . They had lost confidence in our ability to do the right things.”

Az-Zubair estimated that for every $10 in aid allocated to state governors for distribution, only $2 reached people in need. Local officials pocketed the cash and corrupt contractors accepted money for work they didn’t perform.

Az-Zubair wanted to change that, and she knew “naming and shaming” wouldn’t help anyone.

“While you’d like to take a big stick, you just might use that big stick and affect more than the governor or the corrupt civil servant. In fact, it just might be to the detriment of the young girl,” she explains. “What we chose to do was . fix government. It was ambitious, crazy. But, that was the only way we were going to reach the millions who needed help.”

Az-Zubair distributed bonds rather than aid to the governors. Each bond was accompanied by a very detailed (and very public) list of items the money needed to be spent on over one year. The governors were required to a submit reports detailing how their compliance while a group of 82 NGOs served as an independent monitor.

If Az-Zubair’s office couldn’t follow the money, she recalled the bonds forcing local leadership to pay outof-pocket for their waste. In her first year, she issued three recalls. Delinquencies reduced as word spread that Az-Zubair meant business.

Surprisingly, so did the feelings of hopelessness. Az-Zubair said one contractor who had previously left jobs unfilled called her to say, “Thank you for showing us the problems and the challenges were so huge.”

Afraid of not getting paid, the workers actually headed out to a remote village to drill a well. Upon arrival, they realized one wouldn’t be enough for the desperate community. So, they voluntarily drilled a second. “We were looking over their shoulders. We were making them part of the family to address the huge challenges of the poor in Nigeria,” she says.

Since their inception, the MDGs have been met with cynicism and called unachievable in the face of apathy and corruption. That’s exactly the attitude Az-Zubair faced when Nigerians and the international community assumed her billion-dollar windfall would fall into a sinkhole.

Today, you can see in the money in the form of a 27-per-cent reduction in the under-five mortality rate and the 32-per-cent reduction in the maternal mortality rate. As well, 20 million people have gained access to clean water.

In that way, Az-Zubair has achieved a ninth, unspoken MDG -the restoration of hope in Africa’s most populous nation.

That’s an idea worth spreading across the continent.

By Marc And Craig Kielburger,

Edmonton Journal