16 July, 2020

Planning for the new world: A Q&A with Peter Holland

I am pleased to introduce the latest charity leader to take part in our Q&A series 'Planning for New World': Peter Holland, CEO at International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness (IAPB). 

The purpose of this interview series is to learn and share how leaders are adjusting their business strategies in response to the Covid-19 crisis. As UK regulations are being lifted, we explore how some of the voluntary organisations are adapting to what our “new normal” looks like and are grateful to have Peter share how IAPB have adjusted in response to the global pandemic.

{{imageAltText(storage/images/PH.JPG)}}Peter Holland
International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness (IAPB). 

How have the effects of Covid-19 impacted your organisation?

Most of our staff and partners are based internationally so we are quite used to working remotely and using smart technology, which has been less of an impact for us.

When the pandemic hit, my biggest fear was whether our umbrella group was going to remain relevant in the sector. However, one of our roles is around connecting knowledge and there was a sharp demand to share updates with the eye health care sector during the pandemic outbreak, in fact, we have been busier and more productive than ever before. The specific issue which drove this, was related to some evidence in China that a presenting Covid-19 symptom was conjunctivitis. The Wuhan doctor who raised the alarm, and subsequently died, was an ophthalmologist and he had seen some early cases come through his clinic. 

Back in March, eye care organisations wanted to know how to manage during the pandemic and they wanted to understand how other organisations in the sector were dealing with it.  IAPB quickly became a go-to organisation. We became a key provider of real-time updates and people wanted to share their experiences by posting their case studies on our platform. We have proactively set up webinars with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations (UN) to present specialist advice to the eye care health sector and our international reach has been extraordinary.

We had partnered with WHO in 2000 to launch the Vision 2020 initiative to help eliminate avoidable blindness. 2020 was going to be a big campaigning year for us with a full programme of activities involving the world health care assembly and the government to implement our recommendations. But inevitably we have had to halt much of that activity.

We took an early decision to pause our advocacy activities, but we have continued to have discussions with our partners, resulting in the advocacy agenda being seen as a growing priority as we emerge from the pandemic, to ensure that the billion people who are vision impaired because they don’t have access to eye care services are not left even further behind. There’s been a lot of recent activity in linking eye health to the Sustainable Development Goals following our work with the UN.

How have you ensured that eye care health priorities are at the heart of the wider industry’s policies and practices during the pandemic - is there a need for your organisation to adjust and how?

Our aim is to ensure that eye health remains an important priority. Our priorities are around engaging with policy makers. According to the WHO, at least 1 billion people  have sight loss which could have been prevented if they’d had access to  eye care.  In most countries around the world, eye care has been suspended during lockdown, which means there will be a huge back-log of people with unmet eye care, resulting in an increase of serious vision impairment. Our members around the world are now working to re-start eye care services in the current circumstances.  We have set up a taskforce to look at ways to support our members as they restart services and programmes, including providing access to resources on good practice in the current environment.

We don’t want eye care health to slip down governments’ agendas again, so that’s where we are adapting our advocacy messages to the current context, including how good eye health can support the recovery from the pandemic, by improving economic productivity, people’s access to education, gender equity and people’s ability to participate in their daily lives. In many respects good eye health is a golden thread that runs through many of the Sustainable Development Goals.  That’s why our work with the UN is critical: to make the case that as we begin to rebuild and recover, eye health must be integrated as part of the health system to ensure that nobody in the 1 billion gets left behind. “Inclusive recovery” is at the core of our message.

What will be your main leadership & governance priorities, and business continuity objectives going forwards?

My leadership strategy is to be clear about the mission. Our key priority is around the 1 billion people who don't have access to eye health. I'm focused on getting governments engaged in addressing the provision of good quality eye care for our global communities.

Of course, resourcing for ourselves and, critically, our members is an important issue.   We know that a number of our members in the NGO or corporate sector are facing financial and economic challenges which may, in turn, have an impact on our medium-term income. However, it’s important that we don’t let that distract us from our overall mission and from supporting our members. This also has governance implications. A recent Board meeting was an opportunity to stress-test our finances and the risks caused by the pandemic. We are confident that our funding strategy is robust and financially sustainable.

What lessons have you learned about yourself as a leader?

The biggest lesson that I’ve learnt was acknowledging my own vulnerability, without undermining people’s confidence in me and recognising and reassuring staff that we were going through this together. I believe that this was the right leadership approach to enable a constructive conversation about moving forwards.

Recognising the emotional impact that the pandemic had on me, helped me to understand that these feelings would have been the case for many of the team. Ordinarily, I would have not been comfortable about opening up to my team on discussions around mental health, but there is balance to give people confidence and support through a time like this, and it was really important for the organisation to see that I’m a human being as well as their CEO.

What advice would you want to share with other organisations in the health sector?

One piece of advice I would share is “be braver as a leader” - and remain relevant in the sector and the current context.

We have deliberately pushed the organisation to take a more public stance. For example, we have made public statements in support of the WHO and on #Black Lives Matter and the importance the issues its raised to the eye care sector.


Smita Rai

Written By

Smita Rai

Senior Consultant

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