Twenty-one years ago today, the world lost the greatest advocate for children it has ever seen. Around one in the afternoon of January 28, 1995, in a small hospital room in Mount Kisco, New York, James Pineo Grant died quietly in his sleep after a long battle with cancer. He was 72.
Grant was the transformative — and now, seemingly, largely forgotten — leader of UNICEF from 1980 until a few days before his death in 1995. The American lawyer and international aid expert hit the UN like a typhoon and, according to many, harnessed the potential of the world body unlike anyone before or since. In 1982, he launched a “child survival and development revolution” that would save tens of millions of children’s lives and redefine what was possible in global health and international development. Grant put the needs of vulnerable children squarely at the center of the world stage for the first time and, as long as he lived, made sure they stayed there. He was a visionary, but, even more importantly, he was an irritant — a pest who relentlessly and shamelessly badgered the leaders of the world to put children first.
He encountered fierce resistance, including at his own agency. Some thought he was crazy and might cause serious damage to UNICEF. During his first two years, a rumor fluttered in the corridors: Jim Grant was so delusional and out-of-touch that he would be fired. Fortunately for the children of the world, he wasn’t.
Patient and uncommonly persuasive, he was able to win over even his staunchest detractors. Known as the “mesmerizer” by some of his staff, Grant even convinced brutal dictators like Syria’s Hafez al-Assad and Haiti’s Baby Doc Duvalier to implement significant child health programs.
He spurred a historic surge in childhood immunization rates — from Colombia to China to Bangladesh — and was arguably the most powerful champion of vaccines in recent history. He pioneered the practice of humanitarian ceasefires in warzones, so that even children trapped by conflict could receive lifesaving interventions.
In 1990, he convened the largest gathering of heads of state at the time — the World Summit for Children — which elevated the welfare of children to an unprecedented point in history and ultimately inspired the creation of the Millennium Development Goals. Much of the progress in global health and international development over the past two decades bears his fingerprints.
Like most other Americans, I had never heard of Grant. That changed around six years ago, when I came across a tattered copy of an anthology of essays about him that was edited by Richard Jolly and entitled Jim Grant: UNICEF Visionary. It had been published by UNICEF and was out of print. I thumbed through the pages and was transfixed — how was it, I wondered, that I was just now learning about someone who had so profoundly altered the course of recent history?
I had become a new father a few years earlier — I now have a son and daughter — and felt an immediate, palpable admiration for what Jim Grant had done for so many other parents around the world. Who was this man? How and why did he do this? And why has his story essentially been lost to history?
These were among the questions that inspired me to write “A Mighty Purpose: How Jim Grant Sold the World on Saving Its Children.”
In the course of my research, I interviewed 86 people — many of them former UNICEF staff — and read thousands of pages of documents and personal correspondence. I leafed through Jim Grant’s notebooks, which were packed with his frenzied, tiny handwriting and filled with layer upon layer of Post-It notes. I soaked up his fascinating oral history, which is based on interviews done just before death and which chronicles his childhood in China and his relationship with father, Dr. John Black Grant (a hugely influential public health pioneer). I pored over photos and watched dozens of hours of video footage of Grant in the field.
As I delved more deeply into the life of this unusual and singularly driven human being, I came across one amazing story after the other. Some were inspiring, of course, and some were also zany. Grant was a truly eccentric character — someone who pushed the boundaries of time and protocol and reason.
One of my favorite anecdotes came courtesy of Dr. Jon Rohde, who was Grant’s close friend and adviser and himself pivotal to the launching of the “child survival revolution.” During a visit to Haiti, when Grant and his wife Ethel were staying at Jon Rohde’s friend’s beach house — they liked to snorkel there — Grant slipped in the bedroom. The floor may have been wet or he may have been in a mad rush, or both. Either way, he jammed a toe and broke it.
The toe stuck out from his foot at a right angle, and the pain was searing, excruciating. Rohde tried to reset the toe, “but we could not get it fixed,” he says. Grant was scheduled to meet Baby Doc Duvalier the next day. Getting proper medical attention meant he would miss the meeting. So he improvised by cutting a hole in a tennis shoe and wedging his toe through it. It protruded about an inch. On his other foot he wore a dress shoe. This is how he went to see Haiti’s president, jutting toe and all.
This stubborn determination compelled Grant to set goals many people thought were simply inconceivable, foolish even. In 1985, he decided to launch an immunization campaign in El Salvador. And what about the inconvenient fact of the country’s vicious civil war? Grant’s reply was simple: We stop the war. This would elicit an almost audible gasp in a meeting at UNICEF headquarters in New York.
The indefatigable lawyer then tasked his Central America representative, a jovial, chain-smoking Armenian-Lebanese man named Agop Kayayan, with arranging a truce that would allow El Salvador’s children to be immunized. Working with the Catholic Church (a pivotal UNICEF partner), Kayayan, Grant and several others managed to do just that. These so-called “Days of Tranquility” would be reprised year after year until the end of the war in 1992. Thousands of children likely lived as a result.
Grant’s dazzling triumphs were each the result of a collective effort, of course. A “grand alliance,” as he called it — including UNICEF staff members, volunteers, government immunizers, parents, teachers, students, community leaders, religious figures, doctors, midwives, nurses, NGOs, partner agencies, service organizations, labor unions and donors — rallied to make the “child survival revolution” a reality. It was a global movement involving millions of people.
But would any of it have happened without Jim Grant?
As Richard Reid, the former UNICEF regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, put it to me: “Jim cleared all the brush away. He went ahead despite tremendous drag from old-timers and naysayers, and he steadily collected allies and believers. He put people together in such catalytic perfection.”
Perhaps Grant’s greatest contribution was a radically changed set of expectations. Some people had considered the mass deaths of children to be unavoidable, a grisly but inevitable byproduct of poverty. Grant proved that this was simply not the case. In doing so, he showed that lifesaving interventions could reach virtually everyone on earth. As a former UNICEF staffer put it: he swept the impossibility away.
So why is Grant’s story so little known?
Maybe it’s a reflection of the population he and UNICEF and their partners set out to help — mostly nonwhite children from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.
Maybe it’s partly due to Grant’s lack of self-importance and his penchant for liberally sharing credit with others. Maybe it stems from the paralyzing cynicism that envelops the UN and international development — we hear a lot more about the bad news stories than the good news ones. Maybe it’s partly because of the media’s failure to recognize Jim Grant’s significance.
His death registered a few faint blips on the American media’s radar. One of his admirers, activist and consumer advocate Ralph Nader, penned a column noting that Grant’s obituary in the New York Times was short and buried deep in the paper; a few days later, the Times devoted a major front-page story and editorial to the passing of playwright George Abbott (Abbot’s obituary was 2,427 words long; Grant’s was 497 words). Wrote Nader: “The message from The New York Times in late January was: if you wish to be commemorated for a productive life, be a famous writer, producer and director of plays and not a person who is most responsible for saving the lives of 3 million children in the world every year.”
On that day 21 years ago, Grant may have died quietly — but the moments preceding his death were anything but quiet. The indefatigable UNICEF chief fought for the cause that had consumed him with every last breath in his body. On that gray Saturday morning, a nurse came into Grant’s room and asked how he was doing. Gaunt, wheezy, barely able to speak, he answered: “Full of enthusiasm!” He then raised his sinewy fist in the air and said: “Fight, fight, fight!” Later, as he drifted in and out of consciousness, he started hallucinating and seemed to think that he was in a UNICEF board meeting and was addressing his directors. At one point, as one of his sons later recalled, he blurted out: “And I wrote it myself!”
Two days previously, he had used a letter that had arrived in his room as a final point of leverage. It was a short note from President Clinton, thanking Grant for everything he had done for the children of the world. Grant knew the letter gave him a fleeting opportunity born out of his impending death. On Friday, he insisted a response be sent to Clinton. He wanted to ask the president to sign the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The United States was, embarrassingly, one of the holdouts to not endorse the landmark treaty guaranteeing children’s basic rights. And Grant wanted the president to know that this was his last official act — his final request. How could the president of the United States refuse a dying man? Grant’s executive assistant (and de facto chief of staff) Mary Cahill faxed the letter to the White House on Friday afternoon.
At Grant’s memorial service several weeks later, then-First Lady Hillary Clinton announced that her husband’s administration would honor Grant by signing the treaty. In a sad testament to the stunning lack of political will in the US capitol, the treaty has still not been ratified by the US Senate (the US is, in fact, now the only UN member state not to have ratified it). Several UNICEF staffers suggested that, had Jim Grant lived another few years, the treaty might have been ratified by the US long ago.
So what can Jim Grant still teach us? UNICEF veterans like Jon Rohde, Kul Gautam, Dr. Nyi Nyi, Richard Jolly, and Mehr Kahn and John Williams can speak far more authoritatively about this question than I can (you’ll find contributions from each of them in this series).
But from where I sit, there are two basic lessons that stand out. The first is that, as the world pursues the Sustainable Development Goals, children must be at the center of the international development agenda — the survival and well-being of children is a linchpin for so many other things. The second is that the world needs another zealous advocate for its youngest citizens, someone who is shameless and relentless, someone who won’t give up, someone who knocks on the doors of world leaders and whispers insistently in their ears: Put children first! Put children first!
The world needs another Jim Grant.
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