Babatunde’s Lasting Legacy

Babatunde Osotimehin, MD at ICFP 2013
Image credit
Babatunde Osotimehin, MD at ICFP 2013. Image by David Colwell.

To those of us who knew Babatunde Osotimehin, MD, he was simply “Prof.”

Yes, he had many distinguished titles in his career. At the time of his death, Babatunde was the 4th executive director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and the under-secretary-general of the UN. He also co-chaired the Family Planning 2020 (FP2020) Reference Group, alongside Christopher Elias of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Prior to that, his posts included minister of health of Nigeria, and director-general of Nigeria’s National Agency for the Control of AIDS. He also served as provost of the College of Medicine at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, where he qualified as a doctor before going on to earn a doctorate in medicine at the University of Birmingham, UK.

I first met Babatunde when he introduced himself to me as one of the candidates for UNFPA’s top post. When he assumed the position a few months later, I visited him at his office in New York. I asked him what he thought his legacy would be as head of UNFPA. He did not hesitate. He said he wanted to be remembered for his work on behalf of girls and youth worldwide. He lived up to this expectation, in my view.

For a head of a UN agency, Babatunde was not really concerned with bureaucracy or protocols. I would receive texts or phone calls from him whenever he wanted to talk.

At the Gates Institute, we always valued his commitment to attend the International Conference on Family Planning (ICFP). I will always remember what he said during the opening plenary of the 2013 ICFP: “Let’s make sure that women get access to family planning. Let’s make sure they stop dying giving birth. Let’s make sure girls stay in school. Let’s make sure they reach their full potential.”

The dates for the 2016 ICFP in Nusa Dua, Indonesia, conflicted with one of his board meetings at the UN. But Babatunde adjusted his schedule so that he could come. He told me: “This conference is too important. I have to be here with our community.” Then he joked, “You owe me one, Oying!”

Until this week I had no reason to think I would not hear from him again onstage in 2018, when we will gather in Kigali, Rwanda for the 5th conference.

The loss of Babatunde—Prof—is twofold. We have lost an exceptional member of the international development community, and I have lost a great friend and colleague.

Jose “Oying” Rimon II is the director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health, in the Department of Population, Family and Reproductive Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

 

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