Last month, Houston was the host city of the sixth annual George H. W. Bush China-US Relations Conference on Global Infectious Diseases. The conference, which was the result of a partnership between the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, Texas A&M Health Science Center, Peking University Health Science Center, Texas A&M University and the Texas Medical Center in Houston, aimed to stimulate new thoughts, introduce colleagues to new opportunities for collaborations and idea exchanges, while serving as a catalyst for improving health and biosecurity around the world.
The conference is a product of the vision and legacy of President George H.W. Bush and his family toward establishing better understanding, maintaining closer ties, and nurturing important collaborations between China and the United States in the 21st Century.
The conference was co-chaired by Mr. Neil Bush, the third son of George H.W. Bush, and brother to 43rd U.S. President George W. Bush and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.
Mr. Bush, who is a strong advocate for community service especially in the areas of poverty and illiteracy, took the time to share his insights on the conference and the importance of creating collaborative efforts to facilitate sustainable change in the global issue of poverty.
In an exclusive interview with BioNews Texas science correspondent Kara Elam, Mr. Bush answered some questions on this important initiative.
Mr. Bush, thank you for taking the time to speak with me. Would you share your personal insights on the summit and what it meant to you?
For this summit, we deliberately picked an issue of global concern where there would be no political barrier between the Chinese government and the US government towards cooperation–so this was a neutral issue that affects everybody in the world and where the Chinese have expertise and experience and where we have expertise and experience and whereby collaborating we can make a big difference in intervening to help prevent and respond to a future infectious disease outbreak or pandemic.
In your opinion, do you think the goals of the conference were achieved?
I do think so, and I measure that based on the feedback I have received from people who have come up to me since then and said that it was the most useful and interesting and fulfilling conference that they have been to on a subject like this, with the goal of moving US and China toward a more collaborative relationship which would ultimately push the relationship to a more meaningful alliance as opposed to aggressive competitiveness, which creates risk and danger in the world. I think we didn’t move, but we did nudge it forward in a positive way. So the macro goal was met.
The goal of having the two countries be better coordinated for the next outbreak, time will tell, but the fact that the CDC head came and spoke and the former CDC head was here, and we had other representatives that are connected to the whole issue of how we respond to infectious disease here, and China had comparable folks from their side come to the conference so there was a direct communication — and under an umbrella of collaboration I think it is going to be very positive for the goal of a better response to an Ebola outbreak or some other kind of an outbreak in the world.
I was moved by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s commentary after she announced that Liberia was free of Ebola and she lamented that while she was grateful for all the global intervention — the intervention came too little too late and wasn’t well coordinated — over ten thousand people died, families were disrupted, communities have been destroyed, it wreaked havoc on the economy, and it is going to take a long time for Liberia to recover and they were already on the ropes. So, that right there highlights to me the importance of this kind of work and I think we did help move the relationship in a positive direction. People left better informed.
For myself, I learned so much from hearing Dr. Peter Hotez speak, one of the interesting things I learned, was the deep connection between health and specifically, infectious disease and poverty.
Listening to Peter Hotez who has worked in different roles, but is a leading proponent of research and application of the knowledge in neglected tropical diseases’ and how it is a magnet to poverty, and how people in poverty are negatively impacted by having neglected tropical diseases. So it is one of these hidden challenges that needs to be brought out if we are trying to address poverty.
Poverty is an important issue for you. Can you tell me about the work you are doing with the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation to alleviate poverty?
Our overall mission is to try and attack poverty. We are the richest country on the face of the planet and we are living in the richest city (Houston), probably, among the richest big cities on the face of the planet. We have all this medical research, educational and academic knowledge, we have all the resources in Houston to address any issue and yet we tolerate, neglect, and basically don’t pay any attention to what’s in our backyard — and there are a large percentage of people, and a growing percentage, and deeply intractable percentage of people who are stuck in poverty — and whose lives can’t possibly enjoy the realization of their fullest potential because of just where they were born.
The kids are born in this situation and there has been this cycle that has been difficult to penetrate. So the Foundation’s view and mine as well, is in order to prevent the cycle from continuing you have to take the first step in a city and that is to address issues related to low literacy — because if you can’t read or function as a literate citizen you can’t possibly realize your full potential, and you can’t take that first full step out of poverty to break the cycle.
According to the research the foundation has conducted, 38% of Houston children are living in poverty: 30 million fewer words are spoken to them so their vocabulary development is weaker. There is one book for every 300 children living in poverty, which means there is very little culture of reading. And it is very understandable why there are no books in these homes because there are much higher priorities. Often the single parents in these homes are not functioning literate adults either. So 60% of children entering kindergarten in Houston (Independent School District. HISD), are deemed to be ill-prepared to learn they don’t have the letter recognition, vocabulary, or word breakdown capability (all the kinds of things that you need to have kids be able to do entering kindergarten) and 60% of children in Houston (HISD) public schools do not have these capabilities.
So these children are already off-track when they are born, then further off-track when they enter kindergarten, and then there are indicators showing that it just progresses from there, with 24% of HISD children failing the 3rd grade STAAR reading test, which is the test that is assessed by the public schools — and this is a real shame because it only takes 20 out of 40 questions to be answered correctly to achieve a passing score on the test. Only 18% of the students passed the test with flying colors. The STAAR test is correlated with future success so that means 82% of HISD kids are in the “questionable” category. If you don’t pass the test, studies have shown that you are four times more likely to drop out. Too many kids drop out and too many kids that “pass” get shoved through the system even though they don’t have the reading or foundational skills to succeed in school. This city spent 70 million dollars last year remediating, at the community college level, students so they could qualify to take a course for a credit. So clearly these students are not ready for college or the workplace and that is evident because 20% of the adults in Houston are functionally illiterate.
Our goal is to work with the communities to develop collaborations with raising awareness being our number one priority, because until we raise awareness the resources won’t flow and another goal is to increase capacity for vital services where you can use volunteers. We believe there is a great potential for unleashing an army of volunteers in an effective way. So we started a program called “connect for literacy” and it is a volunteer management platform that is offered as a free service to any organization that is addressing literacy-related issues that uses volunteers. We hope in the next few years to have upwards of ten thousand volunteers helping us achieve our goals of increasing literacy rates and decreasing the number of those living in poverty.
Another important goal of ours is to be a collaborator and develop collaborations — our staff work with literacy service providers and connect them with non-literacy service providers who work with the demographic of kids we want to provide services to. So we work with the organizations such as the Food Bank, organizations that are not specifically tailored towards literacy but understand the different needs that have to be addressed to help them be more aware of the problems with literacy in these populations.
What truly motivates me is our coalitions, for I believe to move the needle permanently it has to be a community wide effort. There have been so many organizations that have worked on the individual pieces that make up all the parts of this challenge so there is good work being done — and you can find bright lights everywhere, but it is almost as if all of this work is being done in a vacuum, because the problem hasn’t changed. It’s actually gotten worse. If you look at the big problems of poverty and the inter-generational rates of illiteracy and how it all ties together you see that it hasn’t changed; so it is important to build capacity of services but more important than that, in my opinion, is developing coalitions of stakeholders that set goals to make real changes at the local levels.
What is your Dad’s opinion of the work you are doing?
He is very proud that we are continuing the legacy of his interests and finding ways to build closer ties to China.
Neil Bush is an international businessman who is active in service. He serves as chair of the Points of Light Board of Directors, where Neil expands the vision launched by his father highlighting the critical importance of volunteers to the success of individual lives and the life of our country.
Neil is a director of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M and serves on the board of the Houston Salvation Army. Neil and his wife, Maria, are co-chairs of the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation, dedicated to increasing literacy rates for Houstonians of all ages.
In his professional life, Neil develops international business opportunities. He is chair of Singhaiyi, a Singapore company investing in U.S. real estate, and director of Hong Kong’s Hoifu Energy, which has a diverse line of energy businesses. Neil joined the Board of Directors of Escalera Resources earlier this year. Neil is chair of the Bush China US Relations Conference, which convenes American and Chinese leaders to cooperate on issues of global importance. Neil is also a new member of the Board of the Asia Society Texas Center in Houston.