GATEWAY TO CHANGE Dr Valerie Bemo, who helms crisis response teams for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, tells how those in need can be the greatest teachers BY ZOI CONSTANTINE
ven as a teenager growing up in Cameroon, Valerie Nkamgang Bemo had an altruistic streak. While other girls her age, including her siblings, enjoyed the school holidays, she would leave her city life behind and decamp to a village to live and work alongside rural families. “Going to a village and living for two weeks with farmers, sleeping where they slept, cooking the way they cook, you learn so much and I started to be passionate about that,” says Dr Bemo on a visit to Dubai. “Nobody encouraged me to do that. I did it myself.” While her family were always supportive of her choices, it was this innate drive to help others that led her to train as a medical doctor and from there to a career in international aid and development—work that has taken her around the world over the last two decades. “As a dreamer, I always did my medical work to help. I didn’t start initially with humanitarian work, I started with
the development response and then more and more it ended up that they were sending me to where there were crises and outbreaks,” she says. “I think by doing my medical degree I always wanted to be able to help around the world. That was a dream as a kid, to help—more than to make money.” After working for NGOs primarily across Africa, eight years ago Bemo moved to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where she is now senior programme officer for emergency response. The multi-billion dollar endowment launched 16 years ago by the Microsoft founder and his wife supports development initiatives in more than 100 countries, from efforts to eradicate diseases such as polio to helping poor farmers grow more crops. Bemo’s remit is slightly different. Working on emergencies, she straddles the divide between the main long-term development efforts of the Seattle-based foundation and its humanitarian relief response.
Makeshift refugee camps on the Syrian/Jordian border
MAY / JUNE 2016