Ophelia Dahl

Ophelia Dahl will be honored at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute on May 26.

Courtesy of Ophelia Dahl

Campus & Community

Ophelia Dahl to receive 2023 Radcliffe Medal

5 min read

Recognized for her work advancing global access to health care and championing the rights of the poor

Ophelia Dahl, the internationally recognized health care and social justice advocate and one of the founders of Partners In Health, will receive the prestigious Radcliffe Medal on May 26, the Harvard Radcliffe Institute announced today.

Each year, during Harvard University’s Commencement Week, the Radcliffe Institute awards its highest honor to an individual who embodies its commitment to excellence, inclusion, and social impact. The Radcliffe Medal was first awarded to Lena Horne in 1987. Recipients include Madeleine Albright, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Melinda French Gates, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Dolores Huerta, Sherrilyn Ifill, Toni Morrison, Sandra Day O’Connor, Gloria Steinem, and Janet Yellen.

“It is Ophelia’s unfailing optimism, clarity of vision, and unsurpassed ability to get the work done that make her such a worthy Radcliffe medalist,” says Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Radcliffe Institute dean, Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, and professor of history in the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “She pushes us to see the world and our own moral obligations in powerful new ways, and she has challenged global institutions to rethink their approach to pursuing the long-promised and still-elusive universal right to health.”

Dahl co-founded PIH in 1987 with Paul Farmer, Jim Yong Kim, Todd McCormack, and Thomas J. White in Haiti’s rural Central Plateau, the organization now serves millions of patients in 11 countries on four continents around the world. Dahl led the organization as executive director for 16 years and now chairs its board of directors. She writes, teaches, and speaks about the health and rights of the poor, moral imagination, and accompaniment, which Dahl describes as “walking shoulder to shoulder through whatever challenges arise.” Throughout her career, Dahl has been a tireless advocate for the human rights of the world’s most vulnerable people. Her moral clarity and determination have reshaped the global conversation about health care.

Ophelia Dahl with Partners In Health in Sierra Leone.

Photo by Bec Rollins/PIH file

Ophelia Dahl in Sierra Leone.

PIH’s community-based model has helped to redefine what’s possible in health care delivery in settings of poverty, proving that HIV, multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, and other diseases can be effectively treated in communities from Peru to Rwanda. Under Dahl’s leadership, PIH’s revenue increased tenfold to more than $100 million per year. And she helped the organization navigate challenges with existential implications for both PIH and the millions of patients it serves. Dahl’s answers to strategic questions — such as whether and under what conditions to accept public-sector funds; with what kinds of governments to partner; and how to reconcile the necessity of crisis response and the crucial, long-term work of building health systems — reflect her vision and exemplary leadership.

A sought-after writer and speaker, Dahl calls for courage in the face of problems that seem intractable. “Don’t do this thing where you say, ‘Well I don’t know that that can be done,’” she tells us. “Instead, say, ‘I’m not going to stand for that.’ You push. You push, push, push.” PIH’s successes reflect this ethos. The organization has often worked far outside the typical bounds of a health-focused organization, providing care in regions others had written off and making critical investments in infrastructure and basic necessities while pioneering the practice of accompaniment.

On a global scale, PIH has defied the prevailing wisdom on providing health care to the poor, using both data — the remarkable clinical results of their community-based, on-the-ground work — and a persuasive ethical case. As a New Yorker profile described, Dahl has been able to convince some of the world’s most powerful and fortunate people that they have “a moral obligation to investigate — and compensate for — the suffering that underlies their comfort.”

To Dahl, being pessimistic is unacceptable: it is “just about the most privileged thing you can be,” she says. “You are basically deciding that there’s no hope for a whole group of people who can’t afford to think that way.”

Radcliffe Day will include a panel of internationally recognized experts on a theme related to the work of the Radcliffe Medalist. This year’s focus will be on the essential role of women leaders in global health. The panel will explore the critical importance of women leaders in global health, probe links between disparate health outcomes for women and girls and the dearth of women leaders in the field, and consider how best to address persistent gender gaps in global health leadership. The research and treatment of health issues specific to women consistently receive less support than those particular to men, while women and girls face unique barriers to health care access and experience significant disparities in health outcomes. In this context, it is striking — but perhaps not surprising — to note that while women make up the vast majority of the global health workforce, they comprise a small minority among the world’s most prominent health leaders.

“The Essential Role of Women Leaders in Global Health” will be moderated by Jacqueline Bhabha. Panelists include Agnes Binagwaho, Natalia Kanem ’76, and Reema Nanavaty. Following the panel discussion, Chelsea Clinton will offer a testimonial to Dahl’s remarkable work and impact, and then Dahl will engage in a keynote conversation with the author and PIH trustee John Green, whose bestselling books include “The Fault in Our Stars” and other titles that have been adapted for film and streaming. Brown-Nagin, RI ’17 will formally present the 2023 Radcliffe Medal. 

For more information on the Radcliffe Medal and Radcliffe Day including registration, visit the website.