Interview: President Jimmy Carter

Since its foundation in 1982, the Carter Center has touched the lives of millions around the world. In this exclusive interview, President Jimmy Carter talks to Vision about the Center’s work eradicating diseases and his unwavering mission to improve the lives of the world’s poorest people

The President and I meet on a sultry afternoon in Cairo, the cool air of his Four Seasons suite a welcome respite from the disordered and dust-choked streets of the Egyptian capital. The President emerges from his bedroom, a warm smile on his face and a handshake just the sensible side of crushing.

Jimmy Carter is in Cairo on a political mission, meeting representatives of the Egyptian government, as well as its opponents. Our interview, however, is focused on the healthcare work for which he has become justly celebrated. When he left the White House in January 1981, Carter eschewed the quiet retirement favoured by the majority of his 38 predecessors.

Instead, he chose to launch the Carter Center, a non-governmental, not-for-profit humanitarian organisation, and began to build a legacy that may one day outshine even his achievements at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Just over three decades later and the lives of millions around the world have been touched by the efforts of Carter and his wife, Rosalynn. The couple are known for working tirelessy to improve the lives of some of the poorest and most forgotten people on the planet.

Tackling tropical diseases

“A major part of our work, a major part of our budget and also the vast majority of our people are working full-time in the realm of health,” he says, as he settles into a well-worn armchair. “What the Carter Center does, primarily, is take on projects that other people are not tackling effectively. We have moved into the realm of dealing with diseases that the World Health Organisation (WHO) classifies as neglected tropical diseases – five of which no longer exist in Europe, Japan, the US or Canada, but afflict hundreds of millions of people in Africa and Latin America.”

A glance through the chronicles of these five scourges, dracunculiasis (Guinea worm disease), onchocerciasis (river blindness), trachoma, lymphatic filariasis and schistosomiasis, is horrifying. Painful symptoms can debilitate sufferers and prevent them from earning a livelihood – and in the case of schistosomiasis, entire communities are devastated by bladder, kidney and liver disease. As if these maladies were not occupation enough, the Carter Center is also pouring millions of dollars into combating malaria in Ethiopia, where the mosquito-borne plague is the single largest cause of death in the second-most populous country in Africa.

Since it was founded in 1982, the Center has undertaken peace and health initiatives in more than 70 countries around the world. It has led a coalition that has reduced incidences of Guinea worm disease from an estimated 3.5 million cases in 1986, to less than 550 in 2012, making it likely to be the first disease to be eradicated globally since smallpox in 1979. It has distributed more than 100 million treatments of Mectizan, a drug used to kill river blindness parasites in the human body, and it has built hundreds of thousands of latrines to help control the breeding of the flies that carry chlamydia trachomatis, which causes trachoma. In Nigeria, wide-reaching campaigns to combat lymphatic filariasis and schistosomiasis have improved the lives of millions of people.

“I grow frustrated with the unwillingness of political leaders to be generous in correcting such problems,” Carter says. “That’s why the WHO calls these neglected tropical diseases, because they have been and still are neglected by people.”

Fellow philanthropists

Carter has become used to people taking a keen interest in his, and the foundation’s, work. In terms of financial support, the Carter Center has benefited from “a very good response from many Arab leaders”, he says. His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the late President of the UAE, made a ground-breaking and long-lasting contribution to bettering the lives of some of the poorest people on Earth. If Carter showed subsequent US presidents how they might effect positive change even after leaving office, then His Highness Sheikh Zayed provided the blueprint for Arab leaders to engage in aid projects, such as the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development, which offers funds to developing countries.

The relationship between His Highness and the Carter Center was bolstered by the close bond between the two men. His Highness Sheikh Zayed was involved in particular with the programme to fight Guinea worm disease, an investment continued by His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the President of the UAE, while other causes he identified continue to receive support almost a decade after his death. “He had already been trying to provide healthcare, and better education and agriculture for the people in those countries,” explains Carter, “and he saw that the Center was a way for his generosity to pay dividends.

“Sheikh Zayed was my good friend, and I’ve seen his philanthropic work in many countries in Africa,” recalls Carter. “He helped us with health programmes in a number of countries. People in countries like Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali still revere his name because they remember when we came there many years ago,” says Carter. The two leaders’ great friendship was founded upon a single mutual enthusiasm – “he liked to hunt with falcons and I liked to hunt as well, so we talked about the different techniques of hunting for turkeys and bustards” – but soon blossomed into a close personal and philanthropic relationship that would save countless lives.

The former President’s enthusiasm is infectious, a quality that has proved as valuable to his humanitarian work as it once did to his political career. So how does he find the energy – even at the age of 88 – to spend so much of his life travelling around the world and hopping from one hotel room to another in search of new challenges? “There is an element of altruism, but there’s also self-enjoyment, gratification and fulfilment,” he smiles.