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Programa CAHI Fellows


Interview with the Executive Director of CAHI, Shivaugn Ahern 

Shivaugn Ahern is the Executive Director of CAHI, a role she undertook after briefly working as the Coordinator of Communications and Strategic Alliances. Her previous experience includes public policy consulting and facilitating community participation in public sector decision-making. 

Shivaugn describes having discovered her interest in community development, public policy, and community engagement many years ago, which is evident in the commitment demonstrated by her work with CAHI, and in the interview, below, conducted by CAHI Intern, Alexandra Arriaga, in Costa Rica during the second module of the 6th generation of the CAHI Fellows Program. 

Interviewer: How did you become involved with CAHI?  Shivaugn: I have a law degree with experience in public policy. I went to law school, but I never wanted to litigate. I wanted to work with communities to ensure that diverse voices are heard, that there is an exchange of diverse points of view, that a variety of stakeholders and interests are well-represented in decision-making processes. 

After law school, I had the opportunity to work for a consulting firm for several years, where I worked in stakeholder engagement in a variety of topics. I had the chance to work on a project in Australia, where I visited and engaged stakeholders in rural communities to inform decision-making, in this case about the management of scarce resources like water. These experiences and the connections I’ve made with people and groups while working on important issues and encouraging public involvement in the decision-making process, informed my perspective about equity and justice in the public policy space.  

Later, about eight years ago, I participated in an executive education leadership program, offered by North Carolina State University. I was part of a cohort of about 20 other professionals, all connected to agriculture. In my case, I was representing a voice for sustainable agriculture. That experience was profoundly transformative for me.  

So, when I first learned about CAHI and the Fellows Program, I realized they were offering a similar experience in leadership development, but in the context of health, and I was very interested. My own previous experience in developing leadership skills and the significance of that experience in my life, really motivated me to work on behalf of this CAHI Fellows program. It is so important to me that this opportunity is available for the leaders of Central America, for those who are working hard to improve health in their countries. 

Interviewer: What is CAHI and what is its mission?  Shivaugn: CAHI, the Central American Healthcare Initiative, was founded in 2012 with the mission to develop, support and promote innovation, effectiveness and efficiency in the health sector in Central America. The vision is that all people in Central America, notwithstanding where they live or their socio-economic status, have access to quality healthcare.

This is a huge mission, a lot of work, which CAHI cannot accomplish alone as a not-for-profit organization. Our operational model implies working in alliance with all sectors: public, private and nonprofit; as well as supporting health professionals and professionals in other, related areas, to develop projects. We are not seeking only the absence of illness, but that we integrate the multiple factors that influence the health of a family, a community, or a country. 

CAHI’s work centers on identifying leaders who are already committed and are actively implementing innovations to improve access to healthcare for people and communities in their countries. We identify those leaders and we bring them together in this program call CAHI Fellows.

One of the things that we love about the program is how it breaks down barriers between sectors. In the same group, we have people who work for public hospitals, private clinics, nonprofit organizations or government institutions, all working to improve health. 

After five years of operation, we have a network of more than 100 leaders working in Central America, cooperating with each other to improve health services, offer preventative care, and bring a quality of life to the communities where they are working. 

Interviewer:What makes CAHI different from other similar programs?  Shivaugn: There are other programs that connect professionals and offer trainings to develop leadership skills, especially in business. What makes our program unique is that we bring leaders who are developing a specific project with an objective to have an impact on social wellbeing and improved health. The CAHI Fellows’ projects are tangible, something that is within their sphere of control, in which they have identified a problem that they want to solve. 

During the program, they develop relationships, become friends, and some say, even become like family. These relationships support them as they continue developing better management skills and implementing their projects. CAHI Fellows are not just a network of leaders, they are a network of individuals who are generating real change, who are social change agents in Central America and in the health sector. 

Interviewer: How does CAHI’s work contribute to the Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?  Shivaugn: Most obviously, our work supports SDG 3, health and wellbeing. We are committed to achieving improvements in health and that motivates our work. 

Our vision also includes collaborating to reduce inequities, which supports SDG10. Our efforts are aimed at increasing access to quality healthcare services for all people in Central America. Our efforts are guided by the values of equity and solidarity, which we share with our partners in the region. If we achieve improved equity in health, we know this will also influence other aspects of social equity. 

Finally, we are part of the network of alliances for the SDGs. This is the form in which we work, it is in our DNA. 

Interviewer: What do you think makes CAHI a social innovation?  Shivaugn: When we hear the word innovation, the first thing we think about is technology, but innovation can take many forms: innovation in public policies, in processes, in the type of organizations that we create.

Social innovation is a sexy topic right now, everyone is talking about it. It refers to innovations of all types, but what makes it different is that it contributes to the common good.

A social innovation can take the form of a nonprofit organization, a for-profit entrepreneurial business, it can also be an initiative in public institutions, or changes in government policy. What makes it different is the focus on the common good.

Each one of the CAHI Fellows qualifies as a social innovator because they are developing ideas and actions to generate social wellbeing. Some are entrepreneurs, others work for NGOs, others are generating changes in the public sector, making it stronger and more efficient, but all of them are social innovators. This includes us, at CAHI, we are social innovators.

I think this is the ideal place to be, because it is the future. It is how society and business are going to function, with a greater focus on the social wellbeing we are generating. Consumers are demanding it, but it is also an ethical imperative. 

Interviewer: What impact is CAHI having in the region?  Shivaugn: At CAHI, we do not have a centralized agenda and we do not decide what changes are necessary in health, because that depends on each specific context. What we do is ensure that each leader who becomes a CAHI Fellow identifies the priority, within their scope of influence, community or country. They are creating the agenda of necessary changes in the health sector, based on the context in which they work. This is why we have a wide variety of initiatives and projects. 

CAHI Fellows have told us that they have grown personally and professionally as a result of their participation in the program. Many have reached positions with increased influence within their organizations, and others have become more independent through their entrepreneurial activities.

When we think about the impact more broadly, we can see that CAHI’s reputation is growing and that more people in Central America recognize the importance of our work. The organizations, public institutions, and leaders from all sectors have expressed interest in partnering with CAHI, participating in the program, so they can improve their operations and results. 

Our CAHI Fellows are increasing their influence, implementing what they have learned during the program and in the development of their projects. As years pass, they are able to implement what they learned in new contexts, generating a positive impact in their work. They are also achieving improvements in management processes with more committed and more efficient teams in their institutions.

This vision that I have for the future is that we can create a significant critical mass. In twenty years, with more than twenty generations of CAHI Fellows, that a movement of high-level, committed leadership will have been created, driving important projects and efficient administration of public funds, through alliances within the CAHI Fellows Network, to achieve significant improvements in the health system and positive impact in the quality of life of the population.  

Interviewer: What is the next step for CAHI?  Shivaugn: This is what we are calling CAHI 2.0. In the next five years of operation, we will continue the CAHI Fellows Program for between 18 and 24 people per year. We will also continue with our annual conference, which is usually held in February, to convene leaders and stakeholders to continue learn about management of health in the region, including sharing lessons learned by the CAHI Fellows. Next year, in 2020, the conference will be held in Guatemala.

Our key focus for this new phase of CAHI is to support the CAHI Fellows Network in each country, in a more strategic way. During the rest of this year (2019), we will be launching committees of CAHI Fellows in each country, using our platform to help them organize and identify the most critical issues from their perspectives, for the development of new collaborative projects that will have the widest possible impact. 

Interviewer: What is CAHI looking for in a leader?  Shivaugn: This continues to become more and more clear to us, now that we have 120 leaders in the CAHI Fellows Network. We are looking for people who have a deep connection with the community where they are working, a real commitment to the institution where they are working, to their country, to their fellow citizens, and to the place where they live. We want people with a strong commitment to achieve improvements in the health system in the near term. 

We select leaders with clearly defined projects, where the beneficiaries of the project are clearly identified. It is important that they have clarity about the problem they are trying to solve, about the population who will benefit. They must be able to clearly explain these aspects, because we evaluate both the person and the project.

Third, and I’ll say that this may be the x-factor, we work to differentiate between the people who are only seeking another academic diploma from those who have a genuine commitment to be social change agents, those who want to use what they learn in the program to create change in the world.

So, we are looking for people who work to serve others, who are willing to leave their comfort zone to do that. This is what we have today, a network of people who share these values, this commitment, and this willingness to go beyond their own interests to cooperate for the collective wellbeing.

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