Countess Albina du Boisrouvray

Her fortune for the children

Winter 2014 ]

In 1992, Countess Albina du Boisrouvray gave $20 million to the School to establish the François-Xavier Bagnoud (FXB) Center for Health and Human Rights. Her gift included sufficient funds to construct the FXB building—in which the Center is housed—and to endow the FXB Professorship to lead the center’s work. All were named for her son, who died in a helicopter accident when he was 24.

The gift—which is the largest the School has ever received and dramatically enhanced the School’s capacity to help the world’s poorest and most vulnerable—was inspired by Jonathan Mann, MPH ’80, when he was the crusading leader of the Global Programme on AIDS at the World Health Organization before joining the HSPH faculty in 1990.

“To me he was a warrior fighting against AIDS at large, standing for health and human rights, committed to rescue the discriminated, the most destitute, the most vulnerable ones,” the French countess-turned-activist-and-philanthropist recalled.

Through the lens of Mann’s work, du Boisrouvray saw a critical need to focus on the world’s most vulnerable children with the goal of making real the children’s rights spelled out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, including the right to survival; to develop to the fullest potential; to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation; and to participate fully in family, cultural, and social life. “Investing in children and youth is investing in peace and security,” she says.

Described by Time magazine as an “alchemist” who trans­muted private pain and personal wealth into a commitment to help tens of millions of AIDS orphans and other vulner­able children, du Boisrouvray was the grandchild of “Bolivian King of Tin” Simón Patiño, reputed to be one of the world’s wealthiest men at the time of her birth. After a glamorous career in journalism and film production, the tragic death of her only son changed everything. “My son was a rescue pilot. My job was to carry on his work at a different level, of rescuing people in distress, of course, within my capacity,” she explained in a 2003 interview.

In 1989, du Boisrouvray sold off three-quarters of her large inherited fortune and launched the Association François-Xavier Bagnoud, headquartered in Switzerland. Three years later came her transformative gift to HSPH, which resulted in what she describes as the world’s first academic center for health and human rights.

Du Boisrouvray’s inspiration, Jonathan Mann, was the first person to hold the FXB Professorship in Health and Human Rights and to direct the FXB Center. Today, both of those positions are held by Jennifer Leaning, a physician and expert in public health and rights-based responses to humanitarian crises, who is pushing ahead on an agenda of what she calls “action-oriented research.” (Stephen Marks, former director of the FXB Center, also currently holds the FXB Professorship in Health and Human Rights.) A particular focus of the center’s current work is the plight of the world’s most vulnerable children and adolescents—a group Leaning calls “the bottom billion,” noting that of the world’s 7 billion people, 2.2 billion are under age 18, with half of this group living in extreme poverty.

Within this young, disenfranchised population are those in need of protection from harm and those on the quest, against very steep odds, for a sense that they can control the events in their lives. The FXB Center has launched initiatives with the aim of bringing meaningful policy improvements within two to three years of the start of each project. Current initiatives focus on children under 18 who are trafficked in the U.S. and elsewhere for labor or sex; war-affected chil­dren and youth in refugee settings and camps for the internally displaced; children whose mothers die in a subsequent childbirth; and children in families affected by HIV/AIDS.

Other projects collaborate with partners to engage the Roma in Eastern and Central Europe; to address the vast unmet need for rural girls in India to attain secondary and higher education; and to create high-level international policy interventions that promote rights-based approaches to reproductive health.

As for the Countess, more than 20 years after her gift, her passion continues unabated. Along with remaining an active presence in the work of the FXB Center and related activities around the world, she was the driving force behind the book The Cost of Inaction: Case Studies from Rwanda and Angola, published in 2012, in which Oxford economist Sudhir Anand and his coauthors introduced a method to determine the true (and astronomical) costs of failing to help the world’s poorest children.

“There’s so much to do,” says du Boisrou­vray. “But as I look at the women and children on field trips, I get the energy to go on.”

Madeline Drexler