As part of our 20th birthday celebrations, we are sharing 20 interviews with leaders in philanthropy and the nonprofit sector. Here Ben Morton-Wright, Global Philanthropic Founder and Group CEO, interviews Professor David Lalloo, Director of Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM).

In this interview, Professor Lalloo talks about how LSTM responded to the challenges of COVID and how interconnected the world is, particularly with diseases, and how these diseases expose the challenges and the frailties in society.


Ben Morton-Wright 0:00
I’m very pleased to introduce Professor David Lalloo, who’s the director of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, director, or may I call you, David? Or may I call you professor? (I think David is fine). Okay. Great. Thank you very much for joining us on this series of Global Philanthropic 20 interviews and thought leadership around philanthropy. Perhaps I’ll start just asking you a little bit more about the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. Because I’m finding out more and more and it’s surprising every time I hear more about this amazing institution. So tell us a bit more, you’ve got quite a few firsts, I believe, amongst your history, and you’ve got quite a history! So maybe you could tell us a little bit more about your first and some of your history?

Prof David Lalloo 0:41
Yeah, absolutely. So Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine was the first School of Tropical Medicine in the world. And we’re very proud of what we’ve achieved since we were established almost 125 years ago. We are an organisation that focuses really on research and education on disadvantaged populations, particularly across the world, and with a focus on Africa and Asia. And we’re really interested in improving health outcomes in those populations, by research and by education, but very much with a philosophy of doing this in partnerships with organisations, NGOs, universities, and communities in the areas that we aim to work in.

Ben Morton-Wright 1:28
Obviously, stating the obvious, we’ve had a global pandemic to deal with and blimey, I’m sure that’s kept you pretty busy. So could you just talk through what that’s meant for you and you as an institution and your work around the world? Because I think, you know, it’s quite incredible what you’ve done, but share with us how that’s been in terms of the last few years.

Prof David Lalloo 1:49
Yes, I think like all organisations COVID was a real challenge for us. But I think we were fortunate in being able to be agile and small enough to respond very rapidly. To a certain extent, COVID has really emphasised how important the kind of work that we do is. I think, for many of us that COVID, for the first time, illustrated how interconnected the world is particularly in disease, and that what happens over there may be very relevant to UK or Western public health. And that was reinforced in a way that I think we’d never seen before. It was a disease that really exposed the challenges and the frailties in our society, both, as we’ve seen here in the UK, but particularly in the areas where we work, particularly in Africa, where the lack of resilience to any insult means that something like COVID can really distort and destroy many years of work in advancing human health.

And so I think, we think through the impact of COVID itself sometimes and the awful tragedies of the deaths and illnesses that COVID has caused and many around the world. What we’ve not thought so much about is also the impact that had on the health systems on the looking after mothers in childbirth, the control programmes in malaria, all the TB control programmes, although those disease systems or health systems have been put in place to combat disease, that were completely disruptive.

We’ve seen I think, even in well resourced places like the UK, the impact, for example, on COVID on waiting lists, if you take that to less well resourced health systems, that’s doubled or tripled. And I think there were examples of this when we looked at the West Africa epidemic of Ebola and many for the first time, first of all, in the West, we realised that something happening in Africa could impact us. And that was the beginning, I think, of this discussion. Excess mortality in West Africa came not from Ebola, but from the complete disruption of the health system. And we’ve seen that magnified in in COVID.

Ben Morton-Wright 4:07
And we’ll talk a little bit more about this, as you call it resilient healthcare systems and what we need to do around that, and I think you touch on that in terms of the future. But I mean, it must have been quite a roller coaster the last few years going from, you know, a superb organisation, but perhaps lesser known to an organisation that’s commenting across the world and actually taken a leading role in trying to help us sort out COVID. I mean, I assume that you know, that journey has been quite an interesting one, but also a learning one for people to realise just how important institutions like yours are in the world and the work that you do that perhaps they weren’t aware.

And I know the community has really stepped up. I know the Liverpool community, and wider community has given you huge support around the world. I really wanted to talk because these talks are about philanthropy and obviously the pandemic drove a lot of money, new money and new partnerships around philanthropy and change people’s perspective.

But I do remember on our series of Talking Philanthropy, and the recording was actually on our YouTube, that Ronnie Chan talked about, actually a year before 2018, talked at Talking Philanthropy about the worries that he had and his family had. And obviously, the family had given 350 million to Harvard, in public health. And this was very much around pandemics. And I’m vividly remembering him as an answer to a question saying, you know, one of the things in the world that’s probably coming down the chute is a pandemic. And it’s something, as a family, we thought we would do something, to try and actually help mankind, humankind actually be resilient, and try and think about how we can get ahead of that. And then within 12 months of where we were. So philanthropists, I think, have talked quite a bit about your area over a number of years. And I know you’ve been hugely supported by the Gates Foundation, as well. But maybe you could talk through about the importance of philanthropy, for the school and for the future. And you know, what does philanthropy mean to you? And what can it do for you, in the future?

Prof David Lalloo 6:01
I think the key thing for a predominantly research oriented organisation like ours is the freedom and flexibility philanthropy gives us to be more innovative. To be, to look at more exciting projects, to take a longer term view of what we really want to achieve. We are highly successful in getting standard research grants from funders around the world. And that’s our bread and butter. But if we really are going to realise the impact we want to have, then what we need is money that we can use much more flexibly, that we can really take through a five or 10 year horizon, to make the greatest impact on human health. Philanthropy gives, it gives us that freedom in a way that the standard research grants, our bread and butter, just doesn’t. And so it allows us to think big. It allows us to take risks, because quite frankly, in this arena, if you don’t take risks, then you’re not going to achieve the huge impact we want to do. And it allows us to open up our horizons to really new ideas that I think can make a big difference.

We are by definition, by where we work, an organisation that is comfortable with taking risks, because we believe very strongly, that’s the way that you’re going to make the greatest impact. I think philanthropy helps support that in a way that a much more conservative, standard ground funding system doesn’t.

Ben Morton-Wright 7:30
But part of that is about being a mission, as I see it. And maybe this is, you’d have a view on this. But, you know, I think being a mission driven institution, being very focused on what you do, presents real opportunity for that philanthropist because you kind of know what you’re buying into and what you’re supporting because of the focus on the mission. Do you think that’s a fair comment?

Prof David Lalloo 7:49
It’s definitely a fair comment. I think we’re really lucky internally, very, very few organisations are as clearly focused on one thing; improving health in disadvantaged populations through partnerships. That’s very easy, it means that we have a group of staff who are undertaking all sorts of tasks, who really understand what we do. And it’s also means that it’s very simple, in many ways, to explain to others, we are highly focused of all the higher education institutions within the UK. We are the most focused on a single area. And I think that makes it much easier to go out and to talk to people about what it is we do. That’s a huge advantage.

Ben Morton-Wright 8:36
I mean, that as an adviser to philanthropists, it seems to be a really important asset that you have. And so I think that’s quite remarkable. There’s an opportunity, philanthropic opportunity, but also I have read, I hope the press have reflected this accurately, but I read that the Sainsburys family’s first ever gift, actually was many years ago on their journey to giving over a billion, actually was to LSTM. And I’m also very well aware that I think Bill Gates visited many years ago, but also has been very flattering about the work you’re doing and I think it’s given an enormous support for the foundation too. So in many ways, you’ve got good company to build on in terms of some of the best philanthropists in the world actually recognising that quite a while ago.

So I think that’s interesting. I mean, I suppose the question, if I were lucky enough to have a chequebook in my hand and to write you a 10 million US dollar or 20 million US dollar cheque, you know, what would you do with it at the moment, given the scale of the challenges to humankind? Where would you direct that money? Where would you put that money?

Prof David Lalloo 9:39
Well, we’d be delighted if you did have a cheque. (Ben, I don’t, by the way, unfortunately to hand!). But I think I talked about this a little bit earlier, but a key thing for us is resilience. It’s resilience to the vagaries of the environment, to the vagaries of external affairs such as the Ukraine crisis, such as the the energy crisis, to pandemics to new diseases. It’s resilience to those kinds of things that can affect a health system that quite frankly, for in many parts of the world, is only just about coping. And we work in countries where there is a health system that is functioning pretty well. But you disturb the environment slightly, and it can’t function any further.

What we’re really interested in is thinking through how you make those health systems more resilient, so that they can cope with the insults that we know will occur over the next 10/20 years. And so our big concept at the moment is an institute for resilient health systems. Now people hear about institutes and they immediately talk about or they immediately think about is nice new shiny buildings. That’s not what we’re thinking about here. What we’re using is the WHO building blocks to think through what it is we can do to help countries and regions improve their resilience. And that’s around, you know, there are many building blocks within WHO but a lot of that is about individuals. It’s about having the right number and the right quality of staff who can work in the health systems as researchers who are well equipped to help those systems respond to whatever the emerging challenges are.

It’s about improving research systems. For example, I think COVID is a really good example here. In the West, we were very used to getting regular updates on how many people were infected. And frankly, many of the decisions that were made, for example, in the UK were based on modelling of those data. Many countries in the Global South just didn’t have those kinds of data available. And so really, we’re not able to plan in the same way. And, for example, our work in Malawi was instrumental in helping the Malawi government understand the kind of number of cases of occurring, where the cases occuring and then informing their public health plans. So data becomes really important within that. What we would like to do is support both very senior and new emerging researchers within the health system, through the institute research within health systems, support activities, research activities, and pull those all together, working in partnership and using our expertise of many years of dealing with fragile health systems, to really try and make a difference in this really increasingly important area.

Ben Morton-Wright 13:07
It sounds super exciting that, David and I hope there are philanthropists out there that will step up. I also believe it’s your 125th anniversary, so maybe that’s a moment to celebrate, but also for more people to hear about this opportunity. Because I think resilient healthcare story is really as I see it not being academic or fully understand as you do, as you described, it seems to be the big philanthropic opportunity that is out there.

Just in terms of a final thought, really, I know, it’s been described, I think quite often in recent years that LSTM is a global brand that happens, which I’m a big supporter, because I live there for seven years to be located in Liverpool, a big fan of Liverpool. But you really are a global institution. And that means that you have a lot of activity in the Global South. And I just wondered, there’s quite a debate within philanthropy about the Global South and the emergence, you know, the need for more foundations in the Global South and the emergence of philanthropy, which is quite exciting and development of philanthropy in the Global South. I just wondered in terms of your operations and what opportunity you might present to a philanthropist in the Global South, and maybe you could just have a few thoughts on that subject.

Prof David Lalloo 14:20
Yes, I think I mean, clearly, from our perspective, it’s really exciting to see the emergence of philanthropy of scale in the Global South. And I think for us, the real importance of this is that we can engage those individuals in what we’re doing practically on the ground. You could come and see what we’re doing understand that, but also the understanding of the environment in which we work that is instinctive to somebody who has grown up in the Global South. And those connections we can make between what the philanthropists understand and what we do and the context in which that occurs is, I think, very important and different from maybe a philanthropist that’s based in a western or a more well resourced country. So I think it is very much about the partnership element of this and partnership goes through what a lot of what LSTM does. Its partnership, as I said earlier, with best academics, with NGOs with communities, because that’s the only way that you really deliver the kind of results we want to do. And I think when you’ve got philanthropists sitting in the Global South who understand some of these issues instinctively, it makes that partnership even easier, and ultimately better. And so for us, this is a very, very exciting development that we’re seeing in the last five to 10 years.

Ben Morton-Wright 15:42
It’s been a real pleasure talking to you to David. Presumably anyone out there that might have a chequebook handy should contact you and have a discussion on how to support you and your 125th and this emergence of the resilient healthcare story and how that might be supported. So I hope people that do watch that and might be in a position to contact you, but assume you’re the person to talk to.

Prof David Lalloo 16:00
And we obviously be delighted to talk to anyone to tell them more about what we do. And also, what about what is a really quite exciting 125th anniversary programme, which really encompasses not only scientific developments, but engagement with the local community, and also a great deal of culture, and so I’d be delighted to talk to anyone who’s out there.

Ben Morton-Wright 16:22
I mean, certainly, from my perspective, learning more about the work you do, I think is just phenomenal. So congratulations to you and your team for what you did to everyone in terms of the response to COVID. And it just seems now that you’re so important as an institution going forward that you know, this moment of reflection also, but building to make sure that we’re more resilient for the future, seems absolutely critical. So thank you very much, David. That’s a fascinating talk and best wishes on your 125th, to you and everyone at LSTM

Prof David Lalloo 16:51
Thanks. It’s been really, really fun to talk to you.