We mourn the loss of our founder – Phil Harvey

Phil Harvey, co-founder of Population Services International (PSI), passed away on December 3, 2021, of natural causes at his home. He was 83 years old. On behalf of the entire global PSI family, we extend our heartfelt condolences to Phil’s wife Harriet Lesser and to his family, friends and colleagues.

“Phil was a remarkable figure and a life-long supporter of the right and ability of women to control their own fertility,” said Karl Hofmann, PSI President and CEO. “There was never any doubt where Phil stood: he championed personal freedom and civil liberties. He was a pacesetter, a rulebreaker and visionary forever changing the landscape of global health and social justice.”

A social marketing legacy


In the early 1970s, Phil co-founded PSI along with his longtime friend and associate, Dr. Tim Black, to promote family planning through social marketing. The pair were looking for voluntary family planning solutions that could be delivered at scale. From that vision came the development of large global social marketing programs that put contraceptive choice into people’s hands.

Phil and Tim began PSI with a USAID grant and revenue from a condom catalog they started. This allowed them to create their first social marketing campaign in Kenya. Ever the disruptors, the two created Adam & Eve, an adult pleasure company whose profits helped fund their philanthropic pursuits. Phil was among the first to establish a mail-order business for condoms, which was illegal at the time. He fought and won a landmark court case “Carey vs. Population Services International” where he took on New York laws that criminalized the advertisement and display of contraceptives and made it illegal for anyone except licensed pharmacists to distribute contraceptives.

Phil left his role at PSI and made way for new leadership in 1977, believing that no founder should stay at the helm of an organization indefinitely. The organization eventually branched out beyond family planning to include services like HIV and tuberculosis, malaria, non-communicable diseases, clean-water efforts and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health programs, including safe abortion. 

A ‘serial founder,’ Phil also co-founded Marie Stopes (now MSI Reproductive Choices) with Dr. Tim Black and Jean Black, opening their first clinic on the site of the original Marie Stopes’ Mothers Clinic in central London. Almost two decades after the birth of PSI, Phil launched and led DKT International, another social marketing organization focused on family planning and AIDS prevention. 

“As PSI evolves into the health organization of the future, we continue to draw inspiration from Phil Harvey’s legacy. You can see it in our consumer-focused approach, our commitment to the rights of women and their families to make their own health decisions and our ability to break from tradition and chart a new course – with and for the people we serve,” said Karl Hofmann.

A Q&A With PSI’s Co-Founder, Phil Harvey

In 2020, PSI President and CEO Karl Hofmann sat down with PSI co-founder Phil Harvey to discuss PSI’s roots – and global health’s future.

Karl Hofmann: Phil, it’s a pleasure to be with you. You have many, many admirers across this organization that you co -founded and of course, so many lives that you’ve touched around the world through your work, you’ve been a pacesetter and a rule breaker all your life.

So, take us back, if you would, to the 1960s. What were you hoping to achieve when you started PSI?

Phil Harvey: When Tim and I met in 1969. We were simply burning with zeal for family planning, birth control and contraception.

Tim had been a doctor, in some of the poorest and remotest parts of Africa and New Guinea. His zeal was based on a tragic experience; he had performed a hernia operation on a three-month-old baby—most difficult possible circumstances—on a bamboo table in terrible heat. But when he proudly took the baby back to the mother, her face fell. She had hoped the baby would die. She had four children, her husband was dead, was desperately poor and could not possibly afford another child.

Until women like that can get control of their fertility, they will be slaves to it for forever. So, when Tim and I met in 1969, we both understood that family planning services, both in the U.S. and in [low- and middle- income countries], to the extent these services existed at all, took place in clinics.

We were looking clearly for non-medical, massive, applicable ways of delivering family planning and contraception. And that’s how we focused in on social marketing to get [contraception] getting birth control over the counter and into people’s hands. We began with condoms, which you can sell pretty much anywhere—in hundreds of thousands of shops and tea stalls and kiosks. That was the idea. And that, in fact, is the way it turned out and the way it is still going.

KH: The birth of a big social marketing wave right back at the moment where PSI was born to address those challenges of lack of access, lack of ability of women to control their fertility, using private sector channels, using the wide spectrum of commercial channels to reach people, because the existing infrastructure just couldn’t meet their needs and wasn’t really interested in meeting their needs. That was true then, and in some depressing ways it’s still true now.

Back when you and Tim were conceiving of this approach, and you look back now over those 50 years, What do you think you got right, in terms of how you see the evolution of this work? What has surprised you the most over the last 50 years?

PH: Well, what we got right, I think is fairly straightforward. We glommed on to this idea of social marketing, the use of commercial sector, infrastructure and facilities to distribute over the counter contraceptives and later medical contraceptives through clinic and hospital networks as well. But in the beginning, it was all OTC, and quite possibly through considerable good luck, rather than smart. It turned out to work well. Tim went off to Kenya to start a control social marketing program for the Kinga condom. I stayed behind in the U.S., too, as, as you pointed out, to break the rules by selling condoms by a mail in the U.S., which was illegal at the time, but it worked. I mean that was the thing we were right about. And in many ways, the thing we were most surprised that this approach, almost from the beginning, worked very well with contraceptives.

KH: You’re the father and co-founder of PSI, but you have three NGO institutional children – PSI, MSI, DKT. I won’t ask you to say who your favorite child is, but I will ask you to say what your ambition is for those three as a group? What do you want the world of social marketing that you helped birth to achieve, as a group?

PH: My focus remains as you can tell on family planning and fertility reduction, we certainly haven’t reached the point yet where the job is done. There’s a nice round figure that comes out now because the three organizations together (DKT, MSI, PSI) are serving over 100 million couples in the developing world.

KH: I know you have a lot of other interests and a lot of other passion things that drive your work now. What’s your passion project, outside of social marketing, and tell us why it matters to you right now?

PH: I’m working through the DKT Liberty project, which is a branch of DKT, a non-family planning branch, on racial issues. We’ve done a lot of work fighting the war on drugs in the U.S. and the legalization of marijuana, which have been some of the prime causes of racial injustice. We also work on other areas of civil liberties, like trying to get people out of jail, and on civil asset forfeiture, where the police have gotten into the business of taking people’s money and vehicles and seizing them, and making the owners who are not necessarily charged anything at all  go through all kinds of hoops in order to get their property back.

KH: The work that you started 50 years ago with us, the work that you’re doing today is hugely important and inspirational. You built a house at PSI which is strong and solid.

On behalf of everybody, I want to thank you, Phil, for laying that strong foundation and I want to encourage you to keep doing that very important and righteous work that you’re doing now.

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