International AIDS Activist Sabine Durier, International Finance Corporation

Who she is: For the past decade, Sabine Durier has been on a mission to prevent and treat AIDS.

What she does: From 2000-2010, she was the program leader of IFC Against AIDS, a program that she initiated shortly after joining the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private-sector lending arm of the World Bank Group. Durier and her team worked with multiple IFC investment clients, particularly across Sub-Saharan Africa and India, to set-up workplace and community programs dedicated to the prevention and treatment of HIV / AIDS and other health issues.

Why she does it: Before being dedicated exclusively to the project, “IFC Against AIDS,” Sabine Durier was a strategy officer in IFC’s Corporate Strategy Department. She also held various positions at Honeywell, Inc. in its European and global headquarters. There, she was involved in macroeconomic trends analysis; strategy and scenario planning; business development in emerging markets, notably Ukraine and Brazil; mergers and acquisitions; and competitive analysis. “I love a good challenge,” she says.


Hope Katz Gibbs: We understand that every project the IFC launches has a triple bottom line in that it should lead to positive social, economic, and environmental impact. Can you tell us how the IFC Against AIDS program accomplished those admirable goals?

Sabine Durier: The IFC is dedicated to making investments that have a positive impact on the world. This helps the leaders of the organization identify the issues that are most compelling, so they can utilize their resources in the most effective way possible.

Hope Katz Gibbs: Eradicating AIDS is obviously an ambition that is complicated to achieve. How did you first become interested in tackling this worldwide problem?

Sabine Durier: I came to the U.S. from France in 1996 to study at Georgetown University. I then took a job at Honeywell in Minneapolis, where I worked on foresight, strategy, and innovation. I developed scenario plans, researched mega-trends, and did business-plan development. It was incredibly interesting work, because I was working on tracking the global issues that were facing corporations around the world. But I really wanted to move back to DC. Fortunately, my brother, Dr. Nicolas Durier, had moved to DC to do his doctoral research on pediatric HIV and AIDS at the National Institutes of Health. So we rented a flat together, and, as you can imagine, AIDS became a subject of conversation at the dinner table. It was early 2000, and AIDS was severely affecting Sub-Saharan Africa. In Botswana, it had infected more than 38 percent of the adult population.

Hope Katz Gibbs: AIDS was primarily ravaging young and middle-aged adults at the prime of their working years, so it was really taking a social and economic toll.

Sabine Durier: That’s right. The pandemic affected GDP growth, per capita consumption, and employment — not to mention relationships, families, and children. So my brother and I spent hours discussing possible solutions, trying to figure out what could be done on a social level to make a change.

Hope Katz Gibbs: Is that when you got involved with the IFC?

Sabine Durier: Yes. It was quite fortuitous, actually, because I attended a talk that an officer from the World Bank gave at the IFC on the impact of AIDS. She turned to the audience to ask what we all thought the IFC could do, and bells went off in my head. It seemed to me that this was the perfect organization to make a difference because it has tremendous assets and worldwide reach. In fact, it seemed to me that the IFC should do something for its own good — because as former Levi Strauss International President Lee Smith, said, “It is inevitable that a firm doing business in the developing world will pay for AIDS. It is just a question of when, and how much.”

Hope Katz Gibbs: It must have taken a lot of research to get a handle on the pandemic and its impact on the private sector.

Sabine Durier: It was a ton of work, but in doing the research my team of eight people came up with solutions. My goal was to demystify the problem of AIDS. I wanted to challenge the leadership at the IFC to consider the cost of doing something versus doing nothing. The statistics of how many people are touched by AIDS is staggering, and once we put together the data, and a plan with measurable results, we got approval and funding for the “IFC Against AIDS: Protecting People and Profitability.”

Hope Katz Gibbs: In a February 2008 white paper, you outline lessons you learned from the innovation you did through the IFC Against AIDS program, and how you established a business case for the work you wanted to do. Can you give us some of the highlights of those findings?

Sabine Durier: A critical element in developing a new product or service is the ability to build a strong business case. This includes careful analysis of the environment, issues, and opportunities, and the ability to articulate what the organization can contribute. Back in 2000, a few large international companies had started to engage the AIDS problem to protect their own profits, consumer markets, and reputation. Some also were driven by an agenda of corporate social responsibility. Fortunately, there was compelling data on the impact of AIDS on costs, reputation, and viability of enterprises working in the countries that were most affected by the disease. Private-sector engagement, however, was sporadic.

Hope Katz Gibbs: So you started asking important questions of companies that were directly impacted?

Sabine Durier: Yes. We began gathering strong evidence in favor of action. We asked about an organization’s niche, and what problems were not being addressed. And, we wanted to know what mistakes had been made so we could avoid them.

Hope Katz Gibbs: The good news is that the work you were proposing was aligned with the IFC’s more deliberate engagement in sustainability, or sustainable development, in the area of health and HIV / AIDS. Is that right?

Sabine Durier: It was. So it was important to develop a straightforward role anchored in providing a service — rather than just developing a new policy. We did everything possible to avoid the fear most people felt around the issue. We simply engaged them in a way that was as comfortable as possible, and tried to make it their idea to seek assistance. We told our clients, “You don’t have to do it, but you’ll be glad you did.” That seemed to help break down a lot of barriers for the people who had AIDS or were likely to contract it, the employers of the companies whom we needed to partner with, as well as government organizations.

Hope Katz Gibbs: In your white paper, you explain that innovation is not exciting for everyone. What do you mean by that?

Sabine Durier: When you want to bring about change, you might find out that you are the only one who finds change exciting. In fact, this mired the creation of the IFC Against AIDS project for months, if not years. A lot of people were skeptical that my team could make a difference. In fact, some people thought our efforts could make some IFC transactions more complicated, or that discussing the pandemic would potentially bother the management in one of the companies of our clients.

Hope Katz Gibbs: At the time, you were a junior staff member?

Sabine Durier: That’s right. I only had a few months’ seniority at the IFC, with no prior experience in the field of development. Understandably, my credibility was a major issue.

Hope Katz Gibbs: But you didn’t give up.

Sabine Durier: No. It made me more determined. I formed a network of people with experience in HIV / AIDS outside the IFC, and their feedback, ideas, and encouragement was crucial to setting up the program. I also developed an internal network of like-minded people at the IFC, which proved fundamental to our success. These internal and external networks helped us overcome the lack of experience, and slowly but surely we began to prove ourselves.

Hope Katz Gibbs: That seems like a logical, strategic approach to solving a problem, and one that any entrepreneur or organization could embrace.

Sabine Durier: I am convinced that innovation does not have to be complicated. Sure, the AIDS epidemic and its social and personal implications are complex. After all, it’s very hard to break down barriers. But the methodology and tools that we created for the IFC Against AIDS program is simple, robust, and anchored in research, business cases, and common sense.

Hope Katz Gibbs: In the end, you were able to institute a powerful program that resulted in tangible results.

Sabine Durier: Most definitely. We simply challenged companies in developing countries to step up and be part of the solution. The fact is that 95 percent of people living with HIV / AIDS are in those countries, and the pandemic is presenting enormous challenges to local and international firms doing business there.

Hope Katz Gibbs: I can imagine that the disease leads to increased use of medical and other benefits, more recruitment and training, and lower productivity due to absenteeism, turnover, and loss of experienced personnel.

Sabine Durier: It can also undermine the ability of a small or medium enterprise to succeed. Consumers are impacted, as well, and so are savings, investments, education, and the cost of doing business. It is most definitely in everyone’s best interest to fight against AIDS. And that’s the argument we made.

Hope Katz Gibbs: Do you think your success came from focusing on your clients’ needs?

Sabine Durier: Without doubt. The key to any value-added service, such as our program, is to understand the culture of the client companies you work with. Once we did that, we were able to adapt to their needs and constraints. It wasn’t always easy. We had to build credibility and trust with the management and staff, and we had to be incredibly patient and open to the needs of their situation.

Hope Katz Gibbs: What were some of the personal lessons you learned in the 10 years that you headed up this program?

Sabine Durier: For starters, I learned that implementing change comes from observations of the environment, personal influences, and convictions — and requires a lot of luck. It can be a lonely process, and one that involves a lot of time and hard work. I found it most difficult, at first at least, to manage my own expectations about the level of support that I would receive. The truth is that the less knowledge and experience that you have on a subject, the harder it will be to convince others.

Hope Katz Gibbs: But you were so passionate about the program. Would you have done anything differently?

Sabine Durier: Passion sells! And being very determined and compelling is a winning combination. I know now that having a solid grasp of the facts, trends, and a concrete proposal is the key to making something happen. The only thing I would do differently is to have that established from the very start. It would have avoided quite a bit of frustration on my part.

Hope Katz Gibbs: What was your most valuable lesson learned?

Sabine Durier: That you shouldn’t worry about the numerous problems that might happen in the future. A large portion of what you waste time worrying about never occurs anyway, so why waste valuable energy on worry? Also, I now know there is an enormous value in incremental change. Now that I have two daughters, I can see that truth all the more clearly.

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