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Shambhu Acharya: I will strive to make South East Asia healthier

Shambhu Acharya: I will strive to make South East Asia healthier

Shambhu Acharya is Nepal’s candidate for regional director of the WHO-South-East Asia Region. He has more than three decades of national and international experience in policy and strategy development and analysis, policy dialogue, technical advice and program management support to various countries and WHO country offices. Sabitri Dhakal of ApEx talked with him about his nomination and plans for the region if elected.

Why do you feel like the right candidate for this job?

I have the honor to be nominated to be the candidate for regional director of the World Health Organization East Asia Region and this is something very important and I can do a lot in the region as a leader of the region. This is a position that is going to be elected by 11 member countries of the South East Asia Region and this is a Member State driven process. I feel that I have the right profile based on my long experience, my public health background and the wide range of public health work I have done throughout my professional career. I believe that it makes me the best fit for the regional director and I am looking forward to being elected and then working with the 11 Member States in terms of improving the health services and ensuring health and well-being of people of the member states.

This region is home to one fourth of the world although the countries are small in number. 

It has a number of opportunities and challenges. There are health challenges because it still has problems with some communicable diseases, tropical diseases, poverty related diseases and now because of the economic growth and advancement in countries in the region it is also facing non communicable diseases challenges. The region also has opportunities because they have talented youths and are leading the cutting-edge technology innovation and digitization process that can be used for improving health services especially those who are left behind. The region has great capacity in terms of producing, manufacturing generic medicines, diagnostics and kits and supplies and often the region is called global factory of producing general medicines since it has shared for instance vaccines, generic HIV TB medicines with other countries for those who really can’t afford. 

If elected, what is your vision?

This region has great opportunities, and it has achieved substantial gains in health. Of course, Covid-19 pandemic has dampened a bit but now the speed is again scaling up in terms of improving health services. For me, I want to see this region as a healthy region. I would like to work together with member states to ensure that everyone has access to health services, the quality health services that they need regardless of where they live, who they are, what kinds of income they have and who they are in terms of their identity. I have outlined five strategies to implement if I am elected as Regional Director. 

One is about promoting health in the overall development and through the whole of government and society approaches involving communities, involving individuals to make sure that they understand the importance of health and every citizen can take care of their own health to ensure health and well-being of the population in the region.

The second is about the resilient health system. Some of the countries are far ahead and some of the countries need to move forward. I would like to accompany member states’ efforts towards a resilient health system which is based on primary health care that includes preparedness, primary prevention, and treatment of NCDs and is right based, gender sensitive and fosters equity. Because primary health care should be the foundation of universal health coverage to achieve Health for All.

The third is about protecting people from different kinds of emergencies whether it is humanitarian emergencies like conflicts, environmental like earthquakes, or floods or kind of climate change or public health emergencies meaning any outbreaks such as recent dengue outbreaks, epidemics or pandemic like the recent Covid-19 pandemic. My goal will be to work with member states to protect people from emergencies and respond when needed.

The fourth one is about looking into the innovation and digitization of health. In the 21st century we need to be able to make best use of the new technology and innovations to improve the health services especially to those who are left behind by bringing the health closer to the people through telemedicine, mobile health, digital health and using a number of low-cost innovations for improving health services. The other aspect I can bring is the data lake using advanced technology which can provide integrated reliable data for policy and decision making.

The fifth one is about climate change and health. Climate change has adverse consequences for health. You can see recent flooding in Nepal and India, the melting of glaciers, and rising sea levels. Because of the high temperature, a number of viruses are emerging in the world. This is an important issue now. The climate crisis is contributing to the health crisis. I want to say that our Member States are also affected by this. Member States in the region have made it a priority and I would like to work with together with them to address this important priority.

What are your experiences?

After graduation, I looked for and found a job in Family Planning Association Nepal which gave me an understanding of basic public health. I had the opportunities to visit many remote parts of Nepal, interact with communities and understand their health issues and problems and that’s my basic foundation of public health and that gave me a lot of learning in terms of what do we really need to look at if we want to develop health plans or health policies or health programs and that those policies, programs should be based on the needs of the population. In my view that is the core of the public health setting. That’s my starter. I was then fascinated by the public health and then this people to people connection that I had when I visited number of communities I wanted to go and study public health and went to the US, did my PhD and then had the opportunity to work with the World Bank in the health, nutrition and population division and was able to formulate the projects and proposals for the World Bank and then I moved to the WHO. I have got several positions in WHO in wide range of public health over the period of 30 years and at the country level, regional level and also at headquarters level and the breadth of experience I have I worked as a leader, manager, technical advisor, specialist, public health officer. 

So, if I look back, my whole experience from where I started from family planning till the day today, I am here working as the Director of Country Strategy and Support under the office of the Director General Dr Tedros where I also had the opportunity to really engage in Covid-19 pandemic response and led the publication of about 70 country case studies: WHO’s response to Covid-19 pandemic. I feel like I am the best for Regional Director as I have substance experience in every aspect whether it is management, technical, leadership, diplomacy, strategic thinking and political astuteness. All these vast experiences that I have with all kinds of sets I think is something that is required for the post of regional director as well. That’s why I feel I am the right candidate to be able to lead the WHO Regional Office for the South East Asia Region.

Tell us about your background.

I come from the ground. I am an ordinary Nepali. I am an ordinary citizen. When I grew up, I grew up in a village called Bhutuka in Palpa district in western Nepal. There I went to high school. I used to walk 45 minutes one way to go to school and we went there in slippers. Sometimes there was rain. I was scared of getting my slippers torn so I used to put my slippers on my shoulders and walk to school barefoot. Those days there were no health care centers there. So, I understand the challenges that people face, particularly those who don’t have that facility and those who are left behind and those who don’t have access to the health services. What goes on with them? That’s what motivates me to lead the regional office. I am a very humble person, but I am assertive in terms of programs, and I have worked for 30 years, and I have about 25 years I think supervisory work. In the last 25 years my management style, my leadership style has always been appreciated as a humble and assertive leader/manager somebody who really brings team together, somebody who really empowers team, works together and somebody who doesn’t believe in hierarchy and somebody who really appreciates or encourages or fosters free thinking to bring innovative ideas. I am someone of a farmer and from a middle-class family.

Even now I am like everyone else. I don’t see any difference. To be able to lead we must always be connected to the ground with people. So, whatever I do, whenever I am in a position I always like to get connected with people because that’s the only way we understand what the needs are and how we can respond to the needs. Even if I am in Geneva right now, I want to connect with people. As Director of Country strategy and Support overseeing 152 WHO country offices on behalf of the director general. I get connected regularly with country team whether I have any agenda or not. Even if I don’t have agenda, I try to contact them and just to understand how things are, are there any issues, any problems how the country office is dealing with the Member States and what are the issues and challenges of Member states and how can WHO better respond to any challenges. That’s the kind of person I am. I am a kind of people’s person.

How will Nepal benefit from the position?

At this stage, I don’t think I can say anything Nepal can benefit but the region will benefit as a who because I can bring my knowledge, my expertise, my competencies based on my national, regional, global experience into the region, and I think I am probably the one of few who has this kind of broad three level experience. The second is about what I want once I am the regional director. I want to bring three levels of WHO together as one organization to make sure that the headquarters’ capacity, region’s capacity and country’s capacity together can synergistically better respond to the needs of the Member States.

Third is about my association of different global partners, donors. I would see that the resources in the health sector require more documentation or enhancement, something that I can help to the region. Mostly these regions have done fairly well in health, but I think the domestic investment can still be improved for health. So, I would work with member states in the region to encourage them to increase domestic investment at the same time where there are gaps, I will bring the international community, different bilateral, multilateral agencies as well as funds of foundation to fill in the gaps.

I believe I can better draw the strategy and plans of the regional office for the next five years together with the Member States by learning or listening to the Member States’ needs. I will be able to bring much robust strategies that can be effectively supporting the Member States in the region and I being a Nepali will keep Nepal in my heart and to see what I can add value being a regional direction during my tenure.