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Influencers with Andy Serwer: Gayle Smith

In this episode of Influencers, One Campaign President & CEO Gayle Smith joins Yahoo Finance to discuss what her non-profit doing to raise awareness about COVID-19 and its work to reduce poverty around the world.

Video Transcript

ANDY SERWER: The pandemic is like an X-ray machine that reveals inequality, the United Nations said. It shows the cracks in society that turn an inconvenience for some into a life-altering setback for others.

Few know those fault lines better than Gayle Smith. She's currently the president and CEO of the ONE Campaign, an organization founded by U2 lead singer Bono that aims to end extreme poverty and preventable disease by 2030. Earlier in her career, Smith served in the Obama administration as the head of USAID, which distributes billions in foreign aid each year.

In this episode of "Influencers," Gayle joins me to talk about how the coronavirus has worsened inequality and what we can do about it.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Hello, everyone, and welcome to "Influencers." I'm Andy Serwer. And welcome to our guest Gayle Smith, who is the CEO of the ONE Campaign, an organization seeking to end extreme poverty and preventable disease worldwide. She is also the former US Agency for International Development head under the Obama administration. Gayle, great to see you.

GAYLE SMITH: Great to see you.

ANDY SERWER: So I know people have heard of ONE, but sometimes I think they've heard of ONE because of Bono and because of public campaigns that you do with products. But could you tell everyone exactly what ONE does please?

GAYLE SMITH: So we're called the ONE Campaign because basically what we do is we run campaigns, some of them global, some of them in individual countries, to try to seek one of three things. ONE is more resources for ending extreme poverty and preventable disease. The second is policies. There are a lot of policies that make a huge difference on the ground. And the third is to mobilize and engage citizens because we believe and we've seen it work with the ONE Campaign-- and I've seen it from both sides now as the president and CEO, but I served in two administrations where I was on the other side of it-- that when citizens are organized, have a smart ask, put some bold advocacy behind it, they can effect change.

So we run big change campaigns. Think of a political campaign without a politician.

ANDY SERWER: All right. So how are you connected to other NGOs, Gayle, and where do you sort of fit in, say, with the Gates Foundation or--

GAYLE SMITH: Yeah.

ANDY SERWER: --just-- you know, there's myriad other organizations, right?

GAYLE SMITH: Myriad other organizations, and we work with a huge number of them. I think one important difference is that many of the large NGOs around the world run actual programs, right? So they have supporters in governments, but they also have supporters from among the public, and they support schools and clinics and other programs.

We don't do that. We don't ask our supporters for money. We just ask them for our voice. So we do the advocacy and policy side. How do we mobilize people to effect real and meaningful change, not just in the capitals of donor countries who control a lot of the levers but also within Africa where we've been building this model out over the last couple of years?

ANDY SERWER: What does that really mean, asking people to lend their voice instead of money?

GAYLE SMITH: Yeah. So I'll give you a great example. It was probably over a year ago in the United States where there was a move by the White House on something called rescissions, which was to basically pull a lot of money out of the budget, including a huge amount of our development assistance on the grants that hadn't been spent, and we're going to pull it back. Our team was able to mobilize thousands of people across the country within 24 hours to get to their members of Congress to say we actually care about this. Now, you may think that Americans don't care about people overseas or foreign aid. Actually, we do. You need to stop this.

And that did two things. I think to those members who had not been paying attention it was like, oh, some of my constituents actually care, so maybe I should speak up and act on this. And to others it sent the message that if you're willing to stick your neck out and stop this, you've got constituents who will support you and say good on you. You've done a good thing.

At the global level, it's major petitions and campaigns to let leaders know that there are hundreds of thousands and, in some cases, millions of people who support a bolder move or who will get behind what you're doing or who expect more of you.

ANDY SERWER: Right. And so then I can see how the products like T-shirts or Apple products would fit into that because then you're showing people you care by buying those things and having that logo.

GAYLE SMITH: Well, that's part of ONE Campaign is a project called Red. What Red does is exactly what you described. So it has worked with Apple over the years. There's a Red iPhone. You may have seen it. It's actually a gorgeous red iPhone. And you look, and it's got the Red logo on it. And what that is is that the proceeds from the sale of those products go to the fight against HIV and AIDS.

ANDY SERWER: Right.

GAYLE SMITH: That's a slightly different model than the advocacy model. We raised literally hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars to the global fund to fight AIDS, TB, and malaria, and it's a little bit of a twofer. You can show that you actually care about something, but your money is actually going to fund the programs that help us move forward as we continue to fight the AIDS epidemic.

ANDY SERWER: Got it. OK. I'm going to me ask you about current events and what's going on with COVID-19, and how is that impacting the work that you do, Gayle?

GAYLE SMITH: Dramatically. I mean, you know, you said at the top our mission is ending extreme poverty and preventable diseases. Because of the impacts of this pandemic, which [INAUDIBLE] we're seeing everywhere in the world. It's having a huge economic impact. On the world's poorest countries, that's even greater and felt more because there's less to fall back on.

So we're looking potentially at the first increase worldwide in [INAUDIBLE] since 1998. In other words, since 1998 we've made steady progress in reducing extreme poverty every year. That's about to go in the reverse. The economic consequences of this are massive.

Imagine this. In Africa in tourism, for example, a hugely important sector, $55 billion has been lost in the last three months alone. So everything that we have fought for, that people in these countries have fought for and worked hard to achieve, all of that progress is at stake.

On the preventable-disease side, well, it turns out COVID-19 is actually a preventable disease. And we are looking there. We've launched a big campaign called ONE World to focus on mobilizing a global response to this pandemic. There are ways to end it which we need to do urgently given its impacts, but there's also the risk of it eroding other gains in the global health field. You know, there's a diversion. There's a big, huge emergency.

We can't afford to see a decline in vaccines. We can't afford to see resources shift away from steady progress against AIDS to go to this. So how do we both fight the virus on the preventable-disease side but also protect the gains of the last 25 years?

ANDY SERWER: Wow. I mean, when you're confronting someone like this as the head of an organization or a campaign like this, I should say, how do you begin to focus and even sort of deploy your assets and your resources?

GAYLE SMITH: So our-- we work in a number of ways. ONE of them is what we call the sort of the outside game. How do you capture the public's attention? And ONE has got a long history of marrying up with pop culture to capture people's imagination, and some of that has to do with Bono having been the founder.

But I'll give you a couple examples of things we've done in this campaign. ONE is something called Pass the Mic. And you may have noticed from the early days of this pandemic, there were a lot of celebrities and artists that wanted to do things, but there was an uneasiness. I mean, both like what's our role? How do you do this? This is a sensitive time. This is affecting everyone.

And what we came up with was a campaign where over 40 celebrities and artists handed over their social media to 40 experts, and these experts were front-line health-care workers, epidemiologists, economists, big names on both sides. And we were able to reach millions of people with facts about this pandemic and how to fight it because, as you know, these artists and talent have huge followings.

Another example that I'm really proud of and is actually really good music is our African team worked with African musicians from all over the continent to record an anthem called "Stand Together," which you can find it on Spotify and YouTube and all these places, the theme of which none of us are safe until all of us are safe and that eventually we'll come to the other side of this pandemic, but for now we need to stand together.

And that's the kind of thing that, you know, for people who are already inclined to be interested, you can go to them with analyses, factoids, policy papers, and so on. But for people who aren't necessarily aware, we want to be accessible, and using culture is a great way, we've found, to make it accessible to people.

And [INAUDIBLE], people want to do something. It's not that hard to put your name on a petition, tweet at your member of Congress. It's not that hard. Some people-- people tend to act.

ANDY SERWER: You were directly involved in the US response to Ebola in 2014. So what is your assessment of how the United States has handled the coronavirus?

GAYLE SMITH: You know, I have to say, sadly, I think there's a very sharp contrast. The response to the Ebola epidemic was extremely difficult, but I think one of the ways we were very effective where I think we've got a contrast to right now first was a tremendous reliance on facts, data, science, and expertise. And the American people are blessed by having huge talent within and among our US government agencies, so we had a foundation to work with.

[INAUDIBLE], fighting a virus, it's a science. There's data. You can track it. You know where it moves. So it's like an engineering, logistical exercise at warp speed. So I think that was one, and we're seeing less of that, quite frankly, now.

I don't think the Ebola-- response to the Ebola epidemic was not politicized. There was a little bit of political noise at certain points. But when, for example, we went to Congress to get supplemental funding for the global response, strong bipartisan support. And I think, unfortunately, the response has become quite politicized today.

I think the biggest difference, though, and it's the one that, in many ways, I find the most troubling is that we are not seeing a global response, and we are not seeing American leadership in marshaling that global response. And that global response is one that obviously we want to impact the lives of the world's most disenfranchised, but it also matters to us.

So if you think, for example, of the food fights that were had over PPE and medical supplies, you know, we should be using our leadership to pull the world together and mobilize and say we all need these things. Let's organize ourselves and be more effective and more efficient.

The impact of this-- I mean, here's a shocking thing. There are as many as 35 countries that could end up defaulting on their debts because the economic impact of this is so great. Now, the impact of any one of those on the global economy would not be major. If we start seeing significant numbers of countries default, huge impact on human suffering but huge impact on the global economy. American leadership should be out there getting ahead of that.

Lastly, think about vaccines, and there's a lot of talk about vaccines. We need a plan globally so that we've got vaccine equity, which isn't simply fairness but it is also the kind of coverage that the epidemiology tells us that we need so that we can shorten the lifespan of this pandemic. That requires leadership and engaging the rest of the world in a way that I don't think we're seeing now where, in contrast during Ebola, President Obama convened a summit with the secretary-general of the UN. It was top of agenda in UN Security Council, the G7, the G20. He sat in the Oval Office-- I was with him many times-- called leaders all over the world to say, what are you going to do? What are you going to do? We've all got to work together and get this done.

So I think we're much more fragmented, not nearly science oriented enough, and we're not planning ahead. Other than that, it's great.

ANDY SERWER: And just to follow up on this global-leadership point, would it entail, for instance, the president of the United States-- President Trump, of course-- working with the WHO? And there's this rift now between--

GAYLE SMITH: Right.

ANDY SERWER: --the administration [INAUDIBLE].

GAYLE SMITH: And that's really a tragic, tragic rift. And I think, you know, leave aside how China has handled this from the beginning. And there are likely issues there to explore, and they should be explored because this isn't the first time we're going to face a global health threat. That should be sorted out.

WHO is an institution that the world relies on. It's a little bit-- you know, it's at the heartbeat of a global response like this.

It is not a perfect organization. I've yet to actually meet a perfect organization. But it's a UN agency which means it's also as good as its members. And so it's not as though this is an independent organization that we can just hold a referendum on, decide whether we like it or not. We are members, or we were. We are part of it, and it is our job, obligation, and, I would argue, opportunity to make it better and make it more effective.

I think the tragedy has been to withdraw from the WHO and have an argument at the height of a pandemic. It's a bit like saying you don't like the fire chief, so you're going to burn down the firehouse while your house is on fire. I mean, OK, maybe you'd get the fire chief, but your house is going to burn to the ground.

So it's really-- I think that's really an unfortunate development. It's a really important organization, and we have, as I say, I believe the obligation and the opportunity to make it an even better organization, but it needs our support rather than our attacks.

ANDY SERWER: You mentioned social media.

GAYLE SMITH: Yeah.

ANDY SERWER: And I want to ask you about social media when it comes to the pandemic because there's a lot of misinformation out there when it comes to Facebook and Twitter and YouTube. And I'm curious what your take on that is, and are there solutions there? Is it a necessary evil? What is your thinking?

GAYLE SMITH: Yeah. Well, you know, we've always, I think, faced the people who put falsehoods [INAUDIBLE] or sell products that aren't what they claim to be and so on. I think when it's on the internet when you look at the scale and speed, we're in a bit of a deluge right now, and I think it's really, really dangerous.

But I think as dangerous as that-- and this is, again, where leadership and how you manage a pandemic comes into play. There is even now a debate about where science-- whether science is a legitimate thing or not, right? So it's not just let's debate the facts on whether children transmit the virus. Let's debate whether science really has anything to do with this, and I think there's been a discounting of science when, again, my experience in the Ebola epidemic-- I worked for a long time on HIV and AIDS. Science is our friend.

And, you know, you look at solving a political crisis. Look at Lebanon today, for example. It would be great to have science and facts and data that could help guide through that. That's persuasion. That's a political will. That's human choice.

In a pandemic, facts are ammunition. And so I think the first thing that really needs to happen and where we've got a deficit is we need to relegitimize science. That's kind of shocking to think that that's necessary. Because once you do that, then when falsehoods are put out there, debunking something with the science-- which is what we used to do-- becomes a much easier proposition.

So I can't believe it's a necessary evil because I think it is wildly destructive. I think, tragically, the lifespan of this global pandemic is being extended by this kind of back-and-forth nonsense and disinformation.

I'm not sure what the solution is, to be perfectly frank. Right now, the solution kind of seems to be everybody passing the hot potato around and nobody stepping up and saying, all right, we all got to come together and solve this because, again, I think the last thing anybody wants to do is let's make sure this pandemic lasts a year or two longer than it needs to. Not a good plan.

ANDY SERWER: Right. Switching back a little bit to the global impact and also the national impact. There's talk of, you know, tens of millions of Americans facing food insecurity here, and then-- so I want to ask you about that, number one. And number two, I want to ask you about wealth inequality--

GAYLE SMITH: Yeah.

ANDY SERWER: --and whether it's exacerbating that, Gayle.

GAYLE SMITH: Well, I think that it is, and one of the-- it's terribly interesting things is that the kinds of impacts we're seeing here are certainly being felt elsewhere in the world but just on a much greater scale. So that here, the sort of aftershocks of the secondary impacts of the virus and also the lockdowns is-- we've got joblessness. We've got people who can't move. We've got disruptions in markets and transportation, therefore increases and hunger. People have less money. They're less able to get the food that they need.

We're seeing that on a much greater scale in the poorest countries in the world where we're looking at a doubling of the levels of world hunger. Like, huge. So it's the same issue. It's just it's on a very, very different scale.

And I think that we are likely to see an exacerbation of economic inequality through this because, you know, the way this works is that if you are fortunate enough to have a home and a job and some savings, when there's an external shock like a pandemic, you've got something to fall back on. And you may not want to start spending your savings, but you're not going to end up on the street. You're not going to end up hungry.

When you are living on the edge where you don't have savings in a really poor country-- you may already be hungry, and an external shock like this hits. You're thrown even further into hardship.

And so when I referenced, for example, an increase in extreme poverty for the first time in 22 years, that, in essence, means a wider gap across the wealth spectrum. So I think tragically-- now the other side of that coin is by exposing these inequalities, one hopes that people are seeing what these inequalities are in a way that maybe too many have ignored for too long, and we can seize the opportunity to say, wait a minute. This isn't working. If people are that vulnerable, whether it's here in the United States or in southern Africa, that's not tenable.

ANDY SERWER: Yeah, let me ask you about that, the other side then. I mean, you deal mostly with the people on this side of the coin, but you also deal with celebrities and wealthy people and billionaires. And, Gayle, what do we do with the billionaires? They're getting richer and richer at the expense of all the rest of us. Some of them pitch in and help. Some of them don't. Not everyone's Bill Gates.

GAYLE SMITH: Yeah.

ANDY SERWER: What do we do?

GAYLE SMITH: Well, I think part of it is to get more Bill Gates because I think one of the things that Bill has done is obviously decided at a certain point, I've got enough money, which arguably he certainly does. And so I'm going to use my name, my influence, my contacts, my networks, and my money to build this foundation, which I think the Gates Foundation has been a game changer in global public health, and there are others that have done this.

But I think-- you know, I think the big debate here is-- because there's a lot of sentiment out there now that, well, philanthropy isn't enough. I think that's a fair argument, but I also think we shouldn't discount it. It's hugely impactful that Bill Gates is doing some of what he is doing. If you look at Bloomberg, other philanthropists-- Jeff [INAUDIBLE], there are a number of them out there that are doing quite extraordinary things and putting the resources they've earned.

I think the other question becomes do we have a system that does two things, that puts upon us equal opportunities and equal obligations, right? And, frankly, right now we have a system-- and I think this is true worldwide-- where because of race, class, gender, ethnicity, and systems that haven't been tweaked, we don't have equal opportunity. We don't. And we also don't have equal obligations because, frankly, if you've got a lot of money, you can find all sorts of ways to meet your obligations.

Now, some people do that, I think, in a very principled way and very wisely. There's some-- you know, there's all the stories about no tax ever paid here or there and those kinds of issues. And I think we've got to think in terms of, again, what's equal opportunity but also what is equal obligation? And it's an important discussion.

I think there's a little bit of a danger that we craft it as good guys and bad guys or all or nothing. It's not, but it's one of the ways I think we've got to level the playing field because fair is fair, and a lot of what we have right now around the world isn't fair.

ANDY SERWER: Right. Let me ask you about you, Gayle. You were a journalist-- God love you-- for many years.

GAYLE SMITH: Yeah.

ANDY SERWER: You were a freelancer. I think you worked for the AP, the "Globe," Reuters, [INAUDIBLE] ABC in Africa. So where did you grow up? How did you get into that? And how did you shift into the public-policy world?

GAYLE SMITH: Yeah, really-- so I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and I was very fortunate. I grew up in a healthy, really supportive, safe family. So, you know, I was one of those people that went off into the world with a level of confidence that comes from that kind of upbringing.

And I traveled to Africa after college, took a detour on my path and basically broke up with a crummy boyfriend and kept going. And, you know, what I discovered and the thing that led to my being a journalist-- and it was a bit by chance. I mean, I took the risk and contacted some outlets-- was that here I was. I was well educated, reasonably worldly. And there were all sorts of things going on that I had no idea about, and I felt like these are stories that need to be told because people need to know that these things are happening. A, because in some cases, they were affecting the lives of real people, but also the world isn't just Columbus, Ohio, or the United States, right? It's a whole rich planet out there.

And that, again, I was lucky. I was a freelancer. I was a stringer. I cannot claim to have made massive amounts of money. I can claim to have learned a lot and had the luxury that I think journalism provides is that you get to go seek stories and tell them-- fantastic.

Anyway, I lived in Africa for quite some time, and the way I got into public service was I was contacted by the Clinton administration shortly after he was elected asking whether I would be interested in serving in the administration. And, to be honest-- this was in the olden days. This was a fax-- I thought somebody was messing with me. I was like, yeah, right. Sure.

And then another fax came, and I spoke to them. I didn't take the first thing that was offered, which is I didn't live in Washington at the time where, you know, you're supposed to jump.

Anyway, I ended up going into that administration, and I am so glad that I did because I think public service is an extraordinary thing to see how your government works, to try to make it work more effectively, to realize that our government is as good as the people in it-- you know, our government is made up of citizens-- to see then again in eight years in the Obama administration the extraordinary caliber and dedication of our career government civil servants and Foreign Service officers. It's a great thing. I think more people should seek to do it. It's really-- it was wonderful.

ANDY SERWER: And we both knew Michael Elliott, your predecessor at ONE who tragically died. Great guy.

GAYLE SMITH: Yeah.

ANDY SERWER: So tell us about how you got connected. Did Bono just cold call and say--

GAYLE SMITH: No. I had actually known him for a long time. We had some common roots in the Ethiopian famine in the '80s. And even before the ONE Campaign was created back in the days when he and others were working on debt relief, we connected then. And then when I was in government, both administrations, I was often the object of the ONE Campaign, right? They would be saying we want to see this. We want to see this. So I got to know them well.

And he, in fact, called me before we left office in the Obama administration, said I have a crazy idea. Michael had tragically died, and he said, would you think about doing this?

And I thought about it. From where I had sat in government, it was the most effective advocacy organization I'd worked with, and I wanted to be able to keep working on the issues I was working on then. So that's how it happened. That's how it worked out. It's kind of crazy, but it's fun and it's good, and I can keep fighting the good fight.

ANDY SERWER: So how much-- I know you get asked this all the time, but how much is Bono involved and Bobby Shriver? Are they both active still?

GAYLE SMITH: They're both on the board. They're both tons of enthusiasm for Red and keeping that going and always new ideas on that. And both, yes, quite involved in ONE. I mean, Bono is not involved in the day to day, but he follows the issues and one of the-- and is deployed into action when, either of his own initiative or, when needed, he can have an impact.

And he's got a huge impact because one of the things about him is, yes, he's famous. He's a rock star. But he knows this stuff. It's the thing that impressed me when I first met him. He's got a tremendous strength of feeling about these issues, but he's well schooled in the policy, the other dimensions. So he works the issues really hard.

ANDY SERWER: Right. Let me ask you about your future maybe, and do you have any desire to go back into government? What happened-- what would happen if Joe Biden became president and called you up?

GAYLE SMITH: I'd say congratulations. I had the pleasure and honor of working with him when he was vice president.

You know, interestingly-- and I've had an extraordinary career up to now. I've not been one who's sort of scoped it out and said I'll do this for five years and then I want to do this and then I want to do this. It's been more the case of my considering where can I do something that challenges me enough that I'll work hard, right-- because we all know things that are a little too easy, you, frankly, don't work as hard-- where I can bring about change and make a difference?

And I don't have any plans at this point for anything. We haven't had an election yet. We'll see what happens. We'll see if anybody calls. We'll see what I think.

ANDY SERWER: And finally, Gayle, let me ask you about what you see your legacy or your work. I mean, you talked about this a little bit just a second ago, but what are you trying to do on planet Earth?

GAYLE SMITH: I think I'm trying to make it more fair. You know, again, I was talking about when I first became a journalist and I-- you know, I had a good education. I knew a lot. I think what opened my eyes was how unfair the world is.

And the big event for me was the Ethiopian famine in 1984 and '85 which was-- I was in a part of Ethiopia where there was also a war, and 1,500, 2,000 people were dying every day, just dead bodies and devastation and then bombings every day.

And then you look at the other side of the planet. You arrive in London or the United States and say how can these two realities be existing on the same planet? That's just not right. So what can I do to try to, if the extremes are here to here, just even narrow them a bit, number one?

And then I think the second thing was, you know, even in the midst of extraordinary hardship in countries I've been in, the dignity and generosity afforded me was extraordinary, the generosity afforded by people who have very little.

And I think it's fighting for their dignity. Poor people are not passive people waiting for handouts. They are equals who did not grow up like me, and they deserve opportunity, and they deserve their dignity. So if I can make the world a little bit more fair and fight for the dignity of people who are not getting the dignity they deserve, that will keep me going.

ANDY SERWER: That's great. That's fantastic. Gayle Smith, president and CEO of the ONE Campaign, thank you so much for your time.

GAYLE SMITH: Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure. You take care.

ANDY SERWER: You've been watching "Influencers." I'm Andy Serwer. We'll see you next time.