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December 1, 2023

Q&A with the Global Health Institute’s New Managing Director Oliver Johnson

The Global Health Institute (GHI) is delighted to welcome Dr. Oliver Johnson as its new managing director. In this interview, Dr. Johnson shares what drew him to global health and how he thinks he can contribute to strengthening Georgetown University’s impact and cross-campus collaboration in global health.

Dr. Oliver Johnson
Dr. Oliver Johnson

Dr. Johnson studied medicine and later earned his Ph.D. at King’s College London in the United Kingdom, focusing on strengthening leadership by health professionals in Sub-Saharan Africa. From 2013 to 2015, he served as the founding director of the King’s Global Health Partnership in Sierra Leone, a health systems strengthening program based in Freetown. He later moved to Johannesburg to take up a role with a national non-profit organization that worked to recruit and retain health workers in rural government hospitals in South Africa.

You lived in Sub-Saharan Africa for the last 10 years. Did that impact how you approach global health?

When I started working in global health, I prioritized having equal partnerships with colleagues around the world, but I was starting from a place of relative ignorance, being based in a wealthy city and at a Global North institution. Gaining a deeper understanding of what was happening from the perspective of the communities I was trying to serve made me realize that problems are often highly complex and have long historical roots. Quick-fix ideas that made sense from afar often looked different when you were on the ground. Working in global health made me realize we too often have a one-way approach and need to think more about how Sub-Saharan Africa can contribute to global innovation in how to tackle our own health problems. After living in the United Kingdom and Sub-Saharan Africa, I see more opportunities for mutuality and reciprocity.

As part of your work as the founding director of the King’s Global Health Partnership in Sierra Leone, you were heavily involved in the country’s Ebola response. What are some of the lessons learned from that pandemic?

I had been in Sierra Leone for little over a year before the Ebola outbreak started in 2015, leading a small team of international volunteers working to strengthen the health system. I wasn't expecting to do humanitarian work and quickly had to shift from a long-term development mindset to a more emergency-oriented one. In a humanitarian crisis, urgency and quality matter regarding the safety of health workers and patients. I had the opportunity to reflect on the outbreak response when I co-authored the book Getting to Zero: A Doctor and a Diplomat on the Ebola Frontline (2018) with Dr. Sinead Walsh, who was the Irish ambassador to Sierra Leone and Liberia at the time. In the book we discuss the lessons from the Ebola outbreak, and probably the most important lesson we learned was that communities need to own any response or health service—that trust is a vital asset.

Your Ph.D. was on clinical leadership in Sub-Saharan Africa. Why did you choose this topic, and what did you learn from the research?

As I reflected on my work in Sierra Leone and South Africa, I saw that change happens when there are health professionals with the passion and motivation to drive it and see it through. Hence, I became interested in health leadership and its importance for health system strengthening. My Ph.D. unpacked how to define effective leadership in this setting and how we can structure leadership development programs. What stood out most, however, was that people mostly already knew how to be effective leaders but faced retribution when they tried to drive change due to local power dynamics. This finding influenced my research to look at the political economy of health systems and recognize that health system strengthening is as much a political process as a technical one.

Having worked as the policy director for the U.K.’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Global Health, what are some synergies between global health, public policy, and social justice?

At its core, global health is interdisciplinary. It spans infrastructure, human rights, diplomacy, health, economics, anthropology, and many more disciplines. Parliaments constantly deal with interdisciplinary problems, so it was exciting for me to work with people who intuitively saw the interconnectedness of these issues. Furthermore, few institutions cover both domestic and international issues and can address both simultaneously. An institution like Georgetown University is another excellent example where this approach is possible.

Teaching has been a consistent passion of yours. What do you love about teaching?

One of the most exciting aspects is that it forces you as a lecturer to keep learning and stay current. Students have their whole careers and lives in front of them, so they often come with curiosity and optimism about the world that is infectious. To see students go out in the world and put into practice what we have learned together is incredibly rewarding. It is a catalytic role, and it's a privilege to be part of their journey.

What attracted you to work at Georgetown University?

I have always positioned my career in a university setting because they are uniquely well-placed to engage in global health from an interdisciplinary perspective and to adopt long-term approaches. However, while I find teaching and researching vital and exciting, the pillar of service is just as crucial for me, and Georgetown has that mentality rooted in its Catholic and Jesuit history. There is so much potential for global health work in Georgetown, with its multiple strengths such as law, public service, medicine, and diplomacy, paired with its unique location in Washington, DC. If we bring these pieces together, we can significantly impact global health.

What would you say are essential skills for global health professionals today?

An essential skill is the ability to network, which is premised on building a different range of relationships based on trust over a long time. Also, to speak different languages: the language of social science, medicine, research, policymaking, and so on. To understand their ways of thinking and working, their strengths and the priorities, and sometimes the blind spots each has. It is also about having a deep empathy and understanding that different people and communities have varied framings of the world and how it operates, be it understanding of health and disease, or the role of government. You have to meet people where they are.

On a more personal note, what are you most excited about your move to the United States?

The U.S. culture is a can-do culture; there is ambition, optimism, and confidence. So, I'm excited to be in an institution in a country that has the confidence to do big things because we urgently have significant challenges to overcome, while doing so with humility, excellence, and collaboration. On a personal level, I grew up watching The West Wing, which instilled in me a sense of public service and teamwork. So, walking around Washington, DC, for me is constantly iconic and exciting.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I'm a cyclist. I started a cycling community in Johannesburg, a great way to explore the city and build community. So, I can't wait to get a bike, explore different parts of DC, and tap into that community. I also love film and activism, so I look forward to seeing DC's rich cultural hotspots.

Finally, can you share the last book that has left an impression on you?

One book that got me thinking is Gambling on Development by Stefan Dercon. The author looks at why some countries have succeeded in growing their economies while improving the lives of their citizens and others haven't. The book argues that political commitment from the country’s elites, whoever they might be, is at the issue's core.