University of Washington School of Public Health

UW SPH News: UNís Natalia Kanem will be the 2017 SPH Graduation Speaker

UNís Natalia Kanem will be the 2017 SPH Graduation Speaker


Natalia Kanem, assistant secretary-general of the United Nations and deputy executive director of the UN Population Fund, will speak at the UW School of Public Health’s graduation celebration on June 11.

For more than three decades, Kanem has worked to improve the health and education of women and children worldwide. She began as a student of medicine and public health before boldly forging an international philanthropic path. Now, as the deputy head of a leading UN agency, she works to expand the possibilities for millions of women and children to lead healthy and productive lives.

Natalia Kanem

After receiving her master’s in public health from the School’s Department of Epidemiology in 1990, Kanem co-founded the Harlem Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention in New York. Correspondingly, she took part in the first successful trials for pediatric HIV/AIDS treatment.

As a Ford Foundation officer for West Africa from 1992 to 2005, Kanem funded pioneering work in women’s reproductive health and sexuality. She later became the Foundation’s deputy vice president, focusing on global programs to bolster peace and social justice.

Throughout her career, Kanem worked arduously to transform public health conditions for underserved populations around the world. She led the Council on Foundations accountability task force and was director of the King Baudouin Foundation United States and the Nike RED Project Africa.

She also held joint appointments in pediatrics at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons and in epidemiology at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. Her research focused on traditional health practices, cultural survival and HIV in Panama, the Commonwealth of Dominica, Mozambique and Nigeria.

Kanem served as founding president of ELMA Philanthropies Inc., a private institution promoting health and education for African children. In 2007, she received the SPH Distinguished Alumni Award and was invited to the UW to give a lecture on her perspectives in public health. At that time, she credited the School with allowing her to focus on maternal-child health epidemiology and preventive medicine.

“The School’s international health program allowed me to visit Mozambique and Zimbabwe where I worked with lay midwives,” Kanem told UW Today. “There we had to really work to apply our knowledge in the field. We had to translate what we knew about public health practices to the midwives in a way that they could internalize and practice. That was challenging, but immensely rewarding.”

Kanem has served as the UN Population Fund representative in the United Republic of Tanzania since 2014. She was appointed to her current position by former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in November.