In 1965, the founding members of the University Research Co. (URC) envisioned a better world. With this idealism, URC set out to provide pragmatic solutions to improve the quality of life and well-being of people around the world.
Since then, URC has earned a reputation for success in health care quality improvement. Today, URC has approximately 1,000 employees worldwide and has implemented projects in more than 90 countries, including the Philippines.
“Our mission in the Philippines and other countries where we operate is to help build and sustain resilient health systems by supporting local partners in implementing science-driven, scalable solutions,” Gast said.
For Gast, his recent visit to the Philippines from URC headquarters in Chevy Chase, Maryland, brought nostalgia and pride. He began his career with USAID in the Philippines.
From the Philippines to Iraq to Rome
In 1990, Gast’s career began as a project development officer for USAID/Philippines. His work in the Philippines helped shape pivotal policies in public-private partnerships, opening doors for investment in the energy, telecommunications, and infrastructure sectors.
Next, Gast next was one of the first USAID employees stationed in Iraq. As the mission’s deputy director from April 2003 to March 2004, he helped launch operations and manage a $2.2 billion reconstruction program in the country. After a successful tour in Iraq, he served as the USAID representative to the U.N. agencies in Rome in 2004.
In 2014, he pursued private equity opportunities and advised international companies on their investment strategies. But he became nostalgic for his earlier roles.
“I was really missing international development,” Gast said. “It is all about helping people, systems, and countries improve. It’s exciting being involved in private equity, the excitement of getting a deal done; but it’s really the human development aspect that interests me.”
With his career in international development, Gast had worked in more than 30 countries, meeting and collaborating with people from all walks of life.
“Many conversations about development are technical solutions, but ultimately it comes down to people,” he emphasized. “It’s really amazing for me because … when we get into debates, when we discuss ideas, and when we discuss approaches, we are hearing things from different cultures and different perspectives. I find that to be very enriching.”
Understanding cultures proved important in leading people in countries such as the Philippines.
“In Filipino culture, being direct can be seen as being rude and abrupt. I had to alter my management and leadership style and adjust to the culture,” Gast said. “I have probably honed over the years the ability to understand cultures and understand how to get things done in diverse cultural settings.”
Improving Health Systems in the Philippines
URC’s work in the Philippines began in 2007 with the USAID Health Promotion and Communication Project, which aimed to promote and sustain health-seeking behaviors related to maternal, newborn, and child health and nutrition, family planning, tuberculosis (TB), and HIV/AIDS.
In 2019, USAID selected URC to initiate multiple new projects. These are:
• TB Platforms for Sustainable TB Detection, Care and Treatment Project (TB Platforms), which is increasing TB detection and treatment success rates in three regions – National Capitol Region, Region 4A, and Region 3 – and Marawi City;
• BARMMHealth, which is improving access to quality family planning, maternal and child health, and adolescent reproductive health in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao; and
• RenewHealth, which is expanding access to community-based drug rehabilitation (CBDR) in the Philippines.
RenewHealth is a unique and innovative project for USAID in the Philippines. To reach project goals, URC focused on evidence-based interventions and developed partnerships with national and local government agencies to implement training programs and activities – all towards a more humane and passionate approach to help treat and assist persons who use drugs and their families access treatment without fear or prejudice.
Sharing Successful Drug Rehabilitation Approaches with Local Government
While in the Philippines Gast attended the CBDR conference – CBDR Works! Stories from the Field – an event that brought together stakeholders to advocate for the value of CBDR to local chief executives and CBDR program managers; provided a venue for sharing effective CBDR practices among local government units (LGUs); and facilitated pause and reflect sessions among LGUs on successes, challenges, and ways forward to institutionalize CBDR.
Gast listened to success stories from diverse individuals and met with people responsible for rehabilitating persons who use drugs (PWUDs). He was impressed by the innovative approaches of local partners in implementing CBDR.
“I’m very excited to hear how the various departments have coalesced around the idea that this is a public health issue that has to be resourced locally and that there are local solutions,” Gast noted. “You will see that it is a different approach in each barangay and in each LGU. The principles of training are the same, but if you look at how the barangay engages with the patient, it could be through an NGO or a faith-based organization.”
Aside from RenewHealth, URC is also working toward using artificial intelligence to identify hotspots and mitigate the rising incidence of TB in the Philippines via TB Platforms. Gast also traveled to Cotabato City and met with project leads to oversee developments in the BARMMHealth program.
Now in its 15th year in the Philippines, URC has been a steadfast development partner and an enabler of change, offering, together with local partners, dynamic health systems strengthening programs that help improve the lives of Filipino people. With Gast at the helm, URC is an organization of choice for social development programs in the Philippines and globally.