By Shelia M. Poole
ATLANTA — Dr. Helene Gayle was with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter in Nigeria several years ago when he met with sex workers to talk about the issues they faced.
The women asked Carter why they couldn’t get enough condoms to protect themselves, and the next morning Carter spoke at the church of the former Nigerian president about the importance of valuing and protecting women, even sex workers, said Gayle, former head of Atlanta-based CARE and now CEO of the McKinsey Social Initiative.
More than three decades after leaving the Oval Office, Carter is still visible and highly respected around the world.
“For me, what has stood out is his vision and his willingness to be courageous and take on issues that others are afraid to take on,” Gayle said.
The Carter Center has helped to improve life for people in more than 80 nations, campaigning for everything from eliminating diseases to ensuring free and fair elections and fighting for the rights of girls and women, with Carter often showing up himself.
When he revealed last week that cancer had spread in his body, there was an immediate outpouring of well wishes to the Carter Center and on social media from all over the world — from Elsa, Texas, to South Sudan, where he has monitored elections and worked to eliminate Guinea worm disease.
” … Jimmy Carter and the @CarterCenter have done a lot to bridge inequalities of health and build hope. Get well soon sir. ShareHumanity,” tweeted Patrick Oyulu, a humanitarian worker from the contested area of Agok in South Sudan.
Carter’s work has taken him to Colombia, the Middle East, and North and South Korea. He has lectured on transparency and reform in China and met with Palestinians in the Middle East. Since 1984, Carter and former first lady Rosalynn Carter have joined other volunteers to build, renovate and repair 3,943 homes in 14 countries through Habitat for Humanity International’s Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Projects.
Carter was asked to be a member of The Elders, a group of independent global leaders, founded in 2007 by Nelson Mandela, that work for peace and human rights. Other members include fellow Nobel laureate and former Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan and Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and currently a U.N. Special Envoy on Climate Change.
Joseph Warioba, former prime minister of Tanzania and a former member of the East African Court of Justice, has worked with the Carter Center on various election observation projects since 2001. He was impressed by his commitment to human rights and democracy, but also his humility.
“I couldn’t believe he had been president of the United States because he is a very humble man,” Warioba said in an interview from Dar es Salaam. “He’s very good to work with and mixes with the people quite easily.”
Gayle knows Carter from when she worked for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and traveled with him when she worked with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
In South Africa, Carter took a firm stand with then-President Thabo Mbeki over his AIDS policies. Mbeki refused to support scientific evidence that the disease was caused by a virus that could be controlled with antiretrovirals.
“Everybody else tiptoed around the issue,” Gayle said. Carter, however, told Mbeki that “he had to face this and get serious about it.”
In an email from Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, Dr. Julien Ake, vice president of Global Programs for the Georgia-based global health nonprofit MAP International, said Carter has used his influence to fight Guinea worm disease in that country, which reported its last case in 2006.
In 1995, there were 3,421 cases in 252 Ivoirian villages, according to the Carter Center website. Across the world, the number of victims has dropped from more than 3.5 million in 1986 to fewer than 100 reported cases in 2015.
“It was very important to have President Carter focused on the health concerns of Africa,” Ake wrote. “Under his leadership, heads of states and regional organization leaders in Africa have placed the issue of Guinea worm as a priority and have taken action to resolve them. The entire world will be free of Guinea worm very soon, and some of the credit for this amazing feat should go to President Carter and the Carter Center.”
Former U.S. Ambassador to Austria Swanee Hunt recently attended the World Summit to End Human Trafficking at the Carter Center. She’s known Carter for more than 20 years and remembers when he and his wife traveled to the former Yugoslavia in 1994 in an effort to help end fighting there.
“The man is all over the place, from monitoring elections, to fighting river blindness and Guinea worm disease,” said Hunt, currently the Eleanor Roosevelt Lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “What really strikes me is the depth of his commitment. His ministry is not issues specific, it’s justice specific. When he sees injustice and there’s an opportunity to step in, he does.”
His supporters continue to pray for his healing.
Oyulu, who was born in Uganda and lives in New Jersey, has never met Carter but has followed his work around the world.
“People know and appreciate the work he is doing,” Oyulu said in an interview from South Sudan, where he is the communications manager for Africa Humanitarian Action. Some of the issues Carter has tackled may seem small to people who live in the developed world, “but they are so, so big for us. We want to thank him for what’s he’s done. We wish him the best — all the way from Africa.”