Chris Jones speaks about his work on global health issues in Central and Southeast Asia for Population Services International (PSI), an American non-profit organization.
Could you describe your work for us?
PSI is a Non-Governmental Organization, or NGO. We design and implement health interventions in Vietnam to help people live healthier lives. The majority of our work in Vietnam addresses HIV/AIDS and unsafe water. As a "social marketing" organization we design and implement marketing campaigns to promote healthy behavior—getting tested for HIV, using clean needles for injecting drug users, or treating bad water. My work centers around creating TV, poster, and print marketing campaigns, making safe health and water products accessible, and researching, all designed to encourage healthy behaviors.
What do you consider to be the most interesting part of your work?
The best part is creating marketing campaigns—in the past year I’ve worked on marketing campaigns to encourage populations to get tested for HIV and treat safe water, developing key messages (slogans), images, and working with advertising agencies. It’s fun to see our work on the road while riding to work!
What are the major challenges you face in bringing health advocacy to the regions you work in?
Each health area has different issues, but HIV in particular can be a hot topic. Local and international politics all too often impede sound public health interventions. For example the U.S. government, the largest contributor to HIV programs in the world, has refused to fund needle and syringes for drug users, and many restrictions are placed on how and to whom healthy behaviors to prevent HIV infection are promoted. That’s not good public health and it’s putting millions of people at risk, because they don’t have the simple information or tools they require to protect themselves. When politics drive science the price is paid by those most vulnerable.
But progress is occurring in some areas. Some governments, like Vietnam in particular, are changing dramatically to honestly address the health challenges they face. Rich nations are beginning to realize their responsibility and are giving increased levels of funding, and even U.S. money with restrictions can create benefits.
Please describe an example of how an event elsewhere in the world could directly influence your work.
As an NGO our funds are dependent on rich country donations, so when the U.S. or Europe (or individuals like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet) decides to provide funding to address a problem or disease like HIV, it dramatically affects the amount of work we and others can do.
And vice versa, when countries don’t follow through on their obligations, or decide that less high-profile yet equally debilitating diseases like diarrhea or reproductive health are not a priority. Negatively, diseases like malaria and HIV are impacted by wars, poverty, poor governance, poor international policies—it’s all connected.
In high school, were you involved in any international groups or special programs like study abroad?
I went to high school in a small town called Gig Harbor, Washington. I was lucky to be mentored by a teacher who started a new Russian Studies class. We had bits of Russian language, culture, history, and fundraising—our final project was traveling to Moscow and St Petersburg, all during Soviet times.
What internships or programs did you participate in before working with PSI?
I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Lithuania, but there are many great opportunities to volunteer in the US or abroad. Volunteering overseas is a great way to learn, figure out if you enjoy living internationally, and show organizations you have the commitment required to live in a different cultural environment.
How did your time at college and what you studied there influence your interest in humanitarian work?
I studied accounting and finance at Washington State University. After four years I realized what I did NOT want to do, which was anything associated with finance and accounting! I went back to school some years later for a masters degree in the International Affairs program at Columbia University.
What motivates you the most to continue the work you do?
Selfishness, mostly. I really enjoy working overseas, and the work I do is a great way to live and work immersed in another culture. But I do feel fortunate I have the opportunity to earn a living while attempting to improve the lives of others—not to say that couldn’t be done in the US, or by working with a for-profit company.
Are there any unique skills a person would need for your profession?
There are many many different backgrounds and stories of people like me. Languages can help, experience overseas can help, specific skills (in health, being a doctor or nurse) can help, as can being in the right place at the right time. There are many different ways to work in this line of work, but it’s important to know that line of work is for you.
Could you share some advice for high school students interested in similar careers?
Once you’ve determined what you want to do, the rest is downhill. Volunteer overseas or locally to show yourself and others you have the interest and learn, talk to different people in positions that sound interesting, and know there are 10,000 paths to get there.
Author: Interview conducted by Lawrence Dabney