“Winning the Kravis Prize in Leadership has been a real game changer for Helen Keller International and has helped the world learn about our transformational work. The generous cash award has allowed us to proceed with a critically needed infrastructure upgrade that will pave the way for future growth, leading to greater impact.”
Kathy Spahn, President & CEO of Helen Keller International
About Helen Keller International (HKI)
Founded in 1915 by Helen Keller and George Kessler, Helen Keller International (HKI) is among the oldest international nonprofit organizations devoted to preventing blindness and reducing malnutrition. Headquartered in New York City, HKI works in 22 countries in the Africa and Asia-Pacific regions, as well as the United States.
According to HKI, of the estimated 285 million people who are blind or visually impaired, 80 percent of them don’t have to be. Nearly two billion people suffer from malnutrition caused by a lack of basic nutrients in their food, which can stunt physical and mental health, and can also cause blindness.
In 1972, HKI’s pioneering research linked Vitamin A deficiency to blindness and child mortality (a correlation later verified in 1976). Workers began distributing Vitamin A capsules that year in Asia and Central America. By 1980, distribution was expanded to millions of children and lactating mothers worldwide, with rates of blindness noticeably declining.
As a core part of its approach, HKI develops simple, low-cost, proven solutions, and then scales them. HKI first develops and tests new models that prevent blindness and malnutrition. Once it has a successful model, it works closely with local and national governments and organizations to integrate the intervention into the healthcare infrastructure and to take it to scale. HKI also layers services together for maximum efficiency. For example, HKI uses the strategies, models, and community distribution networks it developed to prevent blindness and provide Vitamin A as a base on which it layers new interventions to address other forms of malnutrition. HKI also uses a multi-faceted approach, addressing blindness and malnutrition through multiple, interrelated interventions. For example, to prevent malnutrition, HKI promotes the production and consumption of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, which are rich in Vitamin A, along with other strategies.
Helen Keller International is dedicated to saving the sight and lives of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. Their mission is to combat the causes of blindness and malnutrition by establishing programs based on evidence and research in vision, health, and nutrition.
Current Operations of Helen Keller International
Since 1972, HKI’s distribution of Vitamin A capsules to children and lactating mothers around the world has decreased blindness and child mortality. Each year, an estimated 500,000 children go blind as a result of vitamin A deficiency. The deficiency compromises the immune system, and can increase the risk of illness and death from diseases such as malaria, diarrhea, and measles. As such, half of these children will die within twelve months of going blind. In 2012 alone, HKI reached 50 million children in Africa and Asia by providing them twice-yearly sight and life saving treatments of vitamin A, for just $1 per child, per year.
In addition to providing vitamin A and mineral supplementation, Helen Keller International works to prevent blindness in several other ways. Helen Keller International’s evolving and continued intervention and prevention methods also include fighting Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) — debilitating conditions linked to poverty that may cause blindness, chronic pain, severe disability, disfigurement, and malnutrition. One in six people around the world — including half a billion children — are infected by NTDs, which include the blinding diseases of trachoma and onchocerciasis, also known as river blindness.
HKI has been integral in developing a system to efficiently and effectively deliver preventive treatment for onchocerciasis, providing access to treatment for more than 80 million people in Africa each year. In addition, HKI trains medical staff in developing countries to perform corrective surgeries on individuals suffering from trachoma.
In the United States, Helen Keller International combats vision impairment by providing impoverished and at-risk school children free vision screenings and prescription eyeglasses, in many cases mitigating poor academic performances. The ChildSight program is also employed in Indonesia and Vietnam.
Recognizing the link between malnutrition and blindness, HKI also works to reduce malnutrition, including the fortification of staple foods with essential nutrients, homestead food production, dietary diversification, promotion of optimal breastfeeding, community-based management of acute malnutrition and Vitamin A supplementation. Through HKI’s Homestead Food Production Program, which teaches gardening and nutritional self-sufficiency to women in Africa and Asia, more than 1 million households have benefited from a healthier, more diversified diet, as well as having earned income from the sales of surplus produce.
In addition, HKI’s partnership with the private sector to fortify cooking oil and wheat flour with essential vitamins and minerals is reaching 94 million people in West Africa. HKI has achieved significant impact through these efforts. In Bangladesh, for example, HKI’s homestead food production program led to a decrease in anemia rates from 64 percent to 45 percent; and, in West Africa, it is estimated that fortified cooking oil prevents 14,300 deaths per year.
Approach and Distinguishing Features
The World Health Organization estimates that Vitamin A supplementation reduces deaths in children ages 6 to 59 months by nearly 25 percent. Helen Keller International’s development of cost-effective, large-scale, sustainable programs — both in the United States and internationally — has made HKI an innovator in the field of eye health and nutrition for a century. “Its worldwide expansion, benefiting the most vulnerable populations, is a testament to HKI’s real and measurable impact”, said Henry R. Kravis ’67, co-founder of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. L.P., and founder of the Kravis Prize.
“There is much to be learned from Helen Keller International’s transformative and encouragingly successful work in saving the sight and lives of millions of people,” Mr. Kravis said. “Their research in nutritional blindness is just one aspect of their far-reaching impact. It was through their findings more than four decades ago that society discovered how something as simple as a vitamin A capsule could mean the difference between sight or blindness — between life and death.”
Marie-Josée Kravis, chair of the Kravis Prize Selection Committee, said that HKI’s leadership in this area has been pivotal. “That this nonprofit was started by such irrepressible, extraordinary human beings is only mirrored by its dedication to the exceptional, tangible work continued by its torch bearers, despite the challenging realities of being a global, life-saving entity. They have put remarkable, sustainable systems in place to change lives all over the world, including the lives of young people here in the United States.”
Together, HKI’s cost-effective programs are preventing malnutrition and infections and diseases, restoring vision, improving learning opportunities, and reducing mortality rates among millions of the world’s most vulnerable people.
Follow Up Interview with Kathy Spahn, HKI’s President and CEO, upon Completing Her Hike up Mount Kilimanjaro
Written by: Haley Goodman, CMC ’17. Haley is a New York native, majoring in International Relations at Claremont McKenna College. She is currently serving as a Kravis Prize Intern at Helen Keller International. She is the International Editor for the student paper the CMC Forum. Some of her other interests include security studies, developmental politics, technology, writing, and the outdoors.
In honor of Helen Keller International’s 100th Anniversary, a team from HKI participated in the END Fund’s Summit to See the END, hiking Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Kilimanjaro or Kili, as it’s informally known, is the highest mountain in Africa and one of the 7 Summits. Members of the HKI team include Kathy Spahn (HKI’s President and CEO), Dick Sandhaus (Kathy’s husband), Henry Barkhorn (HKI Board Member), Randy Belcher (HKI Board Member), and Rico.