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Guest Profile


Ben Davies

Executive Director

Johnson & Johnson Foundation

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About Ben Davies

Ben Davies is the Global Lead for the Johnson & Johnson Center for Health Worker Innovation (CHWI) and Global Community Impact Lead for Europe, Middle East & Africa (EMEA). Within the latter role, Ben also has leadership oversight of the Johnson & Johnson Foundation for the EMEA region. 


Ben is a seasoned private sector partnership professional and cross culture people leader with 20 years’ experience spanning a career working for renowned international organisations across the private, public and non-profit sectors. Ben has over the years built a career co-creating, designing, facilitating, managing and implementing partnerships with some of the world’s largest (and smallest) NGO’s, other private sector and public sector actors to create collective impact platforms in seeking to drive systemic and sustainable social change.

Episode Overview

Executive Director of the Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Ben Davies, joins Alberto Lidji to discuss the importance of supporting frontline healthcare workers.

Ben Davies provides great insight into the work of the Johnson & Johnson Foundation, their support of frontline healthcare workers, their $250 million investment and their aim to reach 100 million people... and much more.

Highly consequential work, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.  This conversation sheds much light on corporate philanthropy and how the private sector plays a role in driving forward the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The following is a transcript of the conversation:

Alberto Lidji

Hello and welcome to The Do One Better! Podcast in philanthropy, sustainability and social entrepreneurship, I'm Alberto Lidji your host from London, please subscribe to the show and please share widely with others. It makes a huge difference indeed. Today we are talking with Ben Davies, who is the executive director of the Johnson & Johnson Foundation. And Johnson & Johnson as probably many of you know, is one of the world's largest health care companies. So today we're going to be focusing on their work in frontline health workers, particularly within the backdrop of covid-19 and this global crisis that we're all living through right now.

So, Ben, without further ado, welcome onto The Do One Better! Podcast.


Ben Davies

Thank you, Alberto. It's a real pleasure to be here.

Alberto Lidji

Great to have you on the show. Why don't we start by learning a little bit about the Johnson & Johnson Foundation?

Ben Davies

Absolutely. So the Johnson & Johnson Foundation has as its vision to really believing that everyone everywhere should have access to basic quality health services. And the foundation's role is really to help program the work that we do as Johnson & Johnson and specifically in my role, which is to shape that for the Europe, Middle East and Africa region to work with a broad portfolio of partner organizations, mainly NGOs, non-governmental organizations at the forefront of community health and serving underserved populations within access to primary care services.

So the foundation has existed in the EMEA region since 2007 and has a board of directors, which is constituted by the leaders of the Johnson & Johnson Company and in the EMEA region. And so it really creates a space, if you like, for community investment against our strategy. And really within that strategy, it's to help champion the nurses and midwives and community health workers who are really at the heart of delivering care at that bridge between the community and primary care.

Interestingly, the foundation is constituted under Scottish law. Now for many of the listeners, if you know, Johnson & Johnson is an extremely diverse and decentralised company. And, you know, as the foundation is within under Scottish law, basically the reason for this was that at the time so nearly 20 years ago now, the local community impact work was created in Scotland, one of our medical device businesses, 'ethical', and created a trust, a corporate citizenship trust for supporting the local community in and around the plant in just outside of Edinburgh in Scotland.

Now, as our world has obviously become more globalized, the opportunity became larger in terms of using the nucleus of a foundation to be able to support partner organisations more globally and specifically across Africa, the Middle East, the rest of Europe. And so from a very small community based foundation in Scotland, this foundation is now responsible for programming with a lot of leading non-governmental organisations such as Save the Children, UNICEF Foundation, the Aga Khan Foundation, across multiple geographies. So we've seen an incredible growth and a strong connection into our business leaders, which I think is really important because we will never operate in a vacuum.

So what Johnson & Johnson does as a company, but I think we've been able to create a very strong community based focus in supporting those workers.

Alberto Lidji

Are you are you mainly a grant maker or are you an operating foundation? How do you how do you aim to improve the state of affairs on the ground?

Ben Davies

Yes, absolutely. Primarily, we are a grant making organisation and this has also evolved over the years. And I think we're in the middle of a major transformation at the moment within where we belong in the J&J ecosystem, within global community impact. Is that we've transitioned because I think the partnering with community based organizations for J&J is something that goes back decades and decades and we have very deep rooted partners whom we work with. And these are predominantly being very much around grant based relationships.

And so that is very much still our bread and bread and butter work, if you like. And and as we're pivoting towards a new strategy, which is very ambitious, and this is the global strategy within which the EMEA foundation is fitting into, it's to really champion, as I mentioned, frontline health workers and really to set ourselves an aspiration for 2030 to to help reduce the health worker coverage gap, because that is large, especially within the context of universal health coverage, is to help increase quality of care through creating a thriving frontline health workforce.

And encapsulating all of that is to help strengthen health systems. And so we've globally allocated and designated $250 million dollars, which we will be using as catalytic funding to work with our existing partners and new partners to really reach one million frontline health workers at that interjunction between community and primary care. And who in turn, you know, within, again, the context of universal health coverage to reach one hundred million underserved people who don't have access to primary health services and try to focus.

Because I think even though two hundred and fifty million sounds a lot, you know, to be able to affect health systems, we need to work with others, other funders, other convenors, other foundations to be able to really have any significant impact. But we do hope that by focusing in on those targets and looking at 10 health systems where we can effect that change, that we really are setting ourselves up for a really exciting journey over the over the next 10 years.

Alberto Lidji

When you say 10 health systems, where...

Ben Davies

So at the moment, globally, what we're looking at is to kind of organize ourselves around impact hubs and we're doing that. For example, if I take the EMEA region, and this is based on a number of different factors, we're looking at need. So the weather is a health worker coverage gap and there is a need for that access to care. We're also looking to see where where we can leverage the broader J&J ecosystem and where we have very close partner organizations already in existence on the ground.

Ben Davies

And so in East Africa, we have a very strong legacy of many, many years of programming. And so for us, where we've been able to really accelerate some of our work has been in Kenya and within our East Africa hub, Kenya is the lead country. And then as we will advance across these 10 years, we will be looking at programming in Tanzania and Uganda, in Ethiopia and Rwanda. We also have a very strong connection to South Africa for many, many years of programming. That's another hub in its own right.

In the Middle East, it's Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt, s Middle East and North Africa. And then we're also looking to obviously this is within a global context with India, China, Southeast Asia, North America and within Latin America, very specifically looking at Brazil, Colombia and Mexico. So I think one of the advantages of this is that we'll be able to exchange learnings, because I think, as you well know, any change that you're looking to make and any kind of effects on, you know, the work that we're doing through social impact will be driven by our local context, history, politics, economics.

And that shapes, obviously, the local environment. Health systems look very different in many different contexts and geographies. But I think by being able to work in very different environments, we'll be able to learn a lot. And, for example, interventions that we might be working with in Kenya, for example, around health systems change, training of, for example, scholarships provided to nurses and midwives. We might be able to use those models with our partners elsewhere across the across the globe.


So really trying to create communities of practice. So with great exchange and knowledge sharing and looking at how we measure that impacts and obviously work with many other actors to be able to innovate and advocate for change.

Alberto Lidji

So what are some of the main things that you're seeing on the ground? So what are the main bottlenecks or constraints? Is it a workforce issue? When you think about front frontline health workers, are you trying to better equip those who are in existence right now? Are you trying to bring in new individuals into the workforce, and from an individual, I guess, patient perspective, universal health care is something that we enjoy here in Europe, in many parts of Europe. It's not something that you would find in many countries in the global south. How are you trying to change that reality on the ground so that that becomes a possibility for for individuals living there?

Ben Davies

It's both, it's both in terms of looking at the coverage gap and then obviously looking at continued lifelong training and capacity building, some of the statistics that we see from the WHO (World Health Organization) is that there's a major coverage gap of 19 million frontline health workers to be able to provide even the basic coverage for universal health coverage.

Now, of course, a lot of that is within low and mid-income settings, as you mentioned, global south. And I think if you, again, look at the issue of health disparities, so access to health is incredible, not only among nations. So, for example, again, in the EMEA region, if you look at GDP, spend per capita, you can see that there are two countries in the EMEA region that are either at the bottom of that league table or at the top of that league table.

So Madagascar has the lowest spend per GDP per capita in the world and Switzerland has has the highest. And then across the region, you see many countries coming in at different levels of that GDP spedn per capita. So you do have incredible health inequity, inequality between nations, but also within countries. So, for example, in the U.K., Save the Children have noted that twenty five percent of children in the United Kingdom actually live under the poverty line. So in terms of the access not only to health, but also to education, all of this is, of course, a big part of a broader ecosystem.

Inequality is driving much of this. So what we try to do, as mentioned against the variables that we use to identify the countries that we are working with or working in is first of all, to understand what is the health coverage gap? How can we help support, you know, that there are more nurses, more midwives and community health workers who can really effect an increase in terms of delivery just by sheer numbers, effectively, where those gaps are most evident.

But that's not enough. I mean, in terms of, you know, the quality piece and we cannot underestimate that enough, quality of care, the quality of delivery of care is so important. And so I think here is where we're looking to provide a very strong base of interventions, firstly around training and education. So that could be pre service training and in-service training to ensure that there are enough certified nurses, midwives, and in the case where community health workers are recognised in the health system that there are more to provide more services.

But then, of course, also in-service training, that this continued development, that there is continued support for specialisation. And then looking across that spectrum, is that enough? Not it's not enough. I think, you know how do you support frontline health workers with their leadership and management skills so that they can move into positions of decision making, how they can affect and improve health systems. How can you connect and integrate health workers. You can see now with the rise of digital health, digital tools, you know, that's changing the landscape even more so now within the context of covid-19, there's been an incredible acceleration of digital health and then two areas which are probably very underfunded and under represented in the lives and trajectories of frontline health workers, the first one being wellbeing and resilience.

What about the mental health and wellbeing of frontline health workers? And how do you ensure that there is a support mechanism for people working on the frontline day and night to be able to support not only the technical skills but also the psychosocial support of what is witnessed? None more so than now. In covid-19, we see that the data shows how doctors, nurses, community health workers are affected by what they are witnessing. So in more mature countries, obviously, there is a good support system for that, but across many low and mid-income countries, that is something that can certainly be enhanced.

And then finally also respect and recognition. So how can the voices of frontline health workers be heard? How can, for example, professional associations be further enhanced and the capacity of those be built so that nurses, midwives have a strong voice and an association that they can lean upon, you know, for their continued development. So effectively, all of this comes together looking at absolute numbers, increase those numbers, continued development of continued learning on the job learning and looking through the trajectory of a career.

And I think looking at obviously working with many, many key organizations who can really affect that change, understand the local context, and, of course, relate very closely into national ministries of health action plans.

Alberto Lidji

Now, you are in an enviable position, I imagine, because not only do you have a balance sheet that enables you to make these grants and be able to allocate $250 million dollars to health care related matters. But also you are one of the world's largest health care companies. And I'm just curious, what sort of resources can you avail yourself of that are intrinsic within Johnson & Johnson that you could deploy on the ground? So putting aside the financials, how do you find it makes your life easier by having the likes of Johnson & Johnson on your side?

Ben Davies

What we try to do is to be as systemic in our programming as possible and where we can leverage the additional resources of J&J to do that, we can have a greater impact. So a couple of ways that we do that, and probably one of the most powerful assets that Johnson & Johnson has is its people. We have close to a 230,000 employees globally, many of whom are based in countries where we have programming through the through the foundation.

So to give you an insight into how this could come together in a kind of ecosystemic way, if you take nursing in East Africa, in East Africa we have now really for 20 years. And the next year is our 20 year anniversary of working with the Aga Khan Foundation and the Aga Khan University School for Nursing and Midwifery. And through that period of time, we've been able to provide through our grant making scholarships for part time studies, for advanced nursing certificates for obviously for nurses and midwives across Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

So that's an ongoing relationship, which is very close and very deep and affects change considerably through our partnership. Now, five years ago, we looked to launch a new intervention which would leverage the skills and capabilities of J&J employees. It's called the secondment program. And so effectively, what this is, is a skills based volunteering opportunity, which would be an assignment of between four to six months with one of our key partner organizations. So in discussions with the Aga Khan Foundation is that, yes, we had grant making to provide scholarships to nurses and midwives through the AKU network.

But we also realized, that to my earlier point around how... providing those certificates is simply not enough. How do you build an enabling environment around nursing, which could also help build respect and recognition for those nurses and midwives? And we agreed with the Aga Khan Foundation that we would support the strengthening of nursing associations in the three East African countries. Now, this was a blended approach between grants and skills based volunteering. So actually, we had six secondees who followed each other in a kind of a rotating basis, who would be assigned to the Aga Khan Foundation on a four to six month basis.

And effectively, the their role was to help build the capacity of the nursing association so that by looking at the business plan, looking at marketing, communication workshops and governance, obviously to help launch many of these nursing associations. So that is a triple win, as we call it, because, you know, there's a gain here for the partner organization in terms of the transferable skills that many J&J'ers could bring into the equation, either being a communications specialist or a lawyer or a business development specialist, depending very much on the on the need at the time, a win for the for the individual, incredible learning experience, working a in a low resource setting, having to be very agile, flexible, working with multiple stakeholders, and of course, a win for the company because of the learning and the experience that the employee has from that field experience is brought back into the company and kind of expands their leadership scope.

So that's one example of how we leverage the broader J&J network.

Alberto Lidji

That's excellent. I mean, life is challenging enough in the best of times. Now we have this pandemic. How has that impacted your day to day and the way you go about things? Because I can only imagine.

Ben Davies

I think, like everybody, it took us by surprise in terms of the speed that the virus was spreading and quickly we realized that this would impact all our programs in terms... especially those programs that were community based, especially those programs that were looking at training, facilitating community health workers who really go door to door, and go out in the community. Simply that doesn't work in that environment. At the same time, you know, as you will will remember and as you can still see today, as the virus is spreading into different geographies, is the the access to protective equipment was a major concern and still remains a major concern. And so I think as as one should do in the state of emergency, I think we took a very agile and flexible approach to our partners' needs.

And I think that is one of the one of our strengths, if I may say so myself, is that we have worked for so many years with many of our partner organisations. And and as such, you know, the relationship is close and it's based on a high degree of trust. And that is something that we really want to cultivate and continue with, because there is transactional relationships and there is a belief in doing something together strongly to affect change.

So we listened very carefully and intently to all of our partners to understand, for example, what the needs would be on the ground. In some cases, programs were put on hold. So we had a major community health worker program taking place in Jordan with the International Rescue Committee. They put the program on hold and at the same time were able to develop a remote delivery program through digital health.

And so just as we were pivoting and being agile, even more so our partners on the ground who wanted to ensure the continuity of health services. We also saw requests come in for a diversion of some of the existing funding towards an emergency response. So we saw that, for example, in Egypt with Save the Children, the request, and we made that very clear up front that we would be able to allocate some grants so they would be made available for an emergency response in all of our geographies where there was a need to do so.

So a lot of pivoting, a lot of understanding what's going on the ground, the flexibility. And then I think also, you know, to your earlier question around how can you leverage the greater good of Johnson & Johnson. Through the foundation, business leaders here in the EMEA region were able to allocate an additional $5 million US dollars to the emergency response through the foundation. And so we were able to go out very quickly through our partner network, for example, with the International Federation of the Red Cross, Red Crescent, to be able to make quick support to the international appeal for Italy, Spain, France and the United Kingdom as the epicenter was in Europe.

And then as the virus spread across the region here, we were able to work with existing partners and some new partners in terms of support for three things, actually. One PPE, so the purchase of protective equipment. Secondly, the support for psychosocial support for frontline health workers so that there would be a support mechanism for doctors, nurses to be able to rely on some psychosocial support in the context they work in. And then thirdly, obviously working very closely with our government affairs colleagues, you know, responding to national action plans, because, again, this is not a proprietary approach by ourselves or any company, but it's how do we turn up together as a global community and as a local community to support those in need. And I think that has been one of the most incredible learnings from the entire situation, is that, you know, this is something where there's been great collaboration. I've seen incredible collaboration within J&J, but also among partner organizations, among international organizations, among ministries of health to really move beyond some of the impasse sometimes that you see and really move towards, quick delivery.

And I think that's been impressive to see after the initial few weeks where people were. I think all of us were a little unsure what is the right thing to do and how do we do it. So I think putting in place a bit of a framework and then working through that certainly helped us.

Alberto Lidji

Sure. And how did you get into all of this? So I know you wear various hats because you're not just the executive director of the Johnson & Johnson Foundation. You're also senior leadership at Johnson & Johnson, the company. And I know your Board is very much comprised of the who's who of the leadership of Johnson & Johnson, the company. Tell me a little bit about your trajectory, how you got to where you are.

Ben Davies

Yeah, I think right from an early age, I... my my passport is British. My upbringing is in Norway, and I currently live in Belgium.

And I think it's a bit of a mixture there. And I think I've always been driven by social change. My parents actually moved from the UK to Norway to start a children's home. And so I grew up in a very values based and kind of social conscious environment around, you know, not everybody has equal access to opportunity. And I think that is probably always driven me from a personal perspective to seek out where I can make change in the world, however big or however small that might be.

And I've always been driven by a form of altruism, I guess you could call it. And I think as I went through studying and, you know, an interesting side note is that Norway's outside of the European Union and I had to work or be unemployed in the United Kingdom for three years before I could before I could go and study. Back in those days, they still provided tuition fees and maintenance grants. That's that's how old I am. And, you know, so that three year period for me was very formative because I worked for an NGO in the Scottish Highlands working for Secial needs youth, a day training center and a residential center.

And it really put me on the path of as I got involved in the organization and the management of the organization, a kind of a path that set me up through my university years and studying to really look at the intersection between kind of social contract between government, society and business. And then as I got into that and looking at the different actors within that gray zone of the social contract, it became clear to me that one of the biggest levers would be the private sector.

And as such, I got involved as a as an intern around about the year 2000, I would say, with an organization called CSR Europe, which is a nusiness network for Corporate Social Responsibility. Having studied business, having studied international relations, this felt like the perfect starting ground. At the time CSR was relatively new. And I think just having created a space for myself as an intern and then growing in that organization, it became very clear to me that this is a path that I wanted to pursue. And, you know, now, nearly 20 years later, I think having gone through various functions, various sectors, what has driven me is really that continued belief that, you know, where I work, I can make the change that I would hope I can do.

I think the aspect of creating long lasting partnerships, convening those partnerships, looking at innovative ways, business models of looking at challenges with new, fresh eyes, fresh tools, bringing unlikely actors together around the table to find new solutions. And that is always really been a big part of driving my approach. And I have to say, you know, now I'm 8 years within J&J and the J&J Foundation. I think what is such a great ground for doing this type of work is the long term perspective. I used to work in food retail and there there is probably a higher sense of urgency and so things move quicker. What I think is great about the J&|J model is that you need to build your alliances internally. You need to develop those deep rooted partnerships externally. And I think by doing that, investing time upfront, you can really, you know, invest for the future and create new models and new depths of partnerships, which is very much what helps drive me and what makes me get up in the morning.

Alberto Lidji

I mean, you certainly have an amazing platform in Johnson & Johnson to be able to drive forward change. Are you feeling optimistic about the next 10 years as we as we approach 2030 and the UN Sustainable Development Goals? How are you feeling about these things?

Ben Davies

I'm feeling optimistic and slightly concerned at the same time. I think coming to where we are at the moment, and looking at the situation around covid-19, who knows what the new normal will look like. So who knows in terms of when you run a foundation that is so strongly connected to one company, how do we ensure that we are safeguarded from a financial perspective to honour all our commitments into the future? Who knows what what's in the crystal ball around supporting health systems moving forward? What about the economy? How how will that be affected? So there is an element of concern around the broader landscape. However, within that, there is an absolute moment of opportunity here. And that's what makes me very optimistic. That moment of opportunity is really around, I would say, if there was ever a time to look at new models of care and new models of delivery, it's now. Especially in and around supporting frontline health workers who are so critical to any health system.

And in many cases they have not been at the forefront of the news, but have become so and become more recognised. So I think the moment is there for us to help support that and accelerate that and amplify that by bringing within this environment that, I would say, level of opportunity around collaborating more, collaborating deeper, better and more meaningful ways. And that gives me great, great hope, that level of collaboration and also, you know, around a sense of urgency, I would say, because I think it's amazing what so many actors were able to do over the last four or five months when your backs are up against the wall to some extent. Right. And you have to be agile enough to be flexible and you have to move things quickly. I think that mentality, you know, will be so important to reach the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) because they are significant. Our planet depends upon it. Health systems depend upon it. And I think we have a key role to play in helping to push a lot of that debate forward. So that also makes me feel optimistic that we have a role to play. And together with so many of our key partners and friends and colleagues and other foundations and companies to really turn up together.

Alberto Lidji

Well that optimism is great. And now, more than ever, frontline health workers, their importance is front and centre and undeniable. What's the key takeaway you'd love for the audience to keep in mind after they finish listening to today's episode?

Ben Davies

I think working in health systems, sometimes it can become highly complex. And I guess all of us work within a systemic approach. Sometimes you need to break it down into its components and, you know, at the end of the day. I think we all... anybody who's listening to this podcast, I think the reason you're listening is that you're a change maker in your organization and not to lose the momentum, not to lose faith in what you believe in, some days are much tougher than others.

And all of us, I'm sure, are working on systemic change. Every little bit counts. And I think building, you know, what you invest today in terms of relationships with your colleagues, with your partners will always come back and support you in the future. And I think sometimes, you know, little wins are a big part of a big win. And not forgetting that I think is such an important part of our own resilience as change makers is that celebrate the small wins because they will all help lead up to the bigger win as we move into the future.

Alberto Lidji

Very well said, very well said indeed. Ben Davis, Executive Director of the Johnson & Johnson Foundation. It has been an absolute pleasure having you on The Do One Better! Podcast today. Thanks so much.

Ben Davies

Thank you so much, Alberto. It's been a pleasure to be with you today.

Additional Resources

Johnson & Johnson Foundation - Website

Ben Davies - LinkedIn​

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