David Nabarro, Special Envoy on Ebola, visits Freetown, Sierra Leone, 2014.

David Nabarro: “The role I have been training for my entire life.”

From his time as medical officer for Save the Children in North Iraq in the mid-1970s to his most recent position as special adviser to the UN Secretary-General on sustainable development and climate change, David Nabarro has lived global health. He’s held key UN and WHO positions that focused on malaria, Ebola, food security, childhood obesity. It’s a long CV—but is it sufficient to persuade countries to select him as WHO Director-General over the two other robustly qualified candidates? The question will be answered in less than a month at the World Health Assembly.

In this 4-part Q&A with GHN, Nabarro makes the case for his candidacy. He discusses what his priorities would be as DG, the changes he would bring to the organization, and the lessons he learned by leading the advisory group on reforming WHO’s outbreak and emergency response efforts.

For the first installment, Nabarro details his experience and responds to the notion that it’s time for a DG from a low- or middle-income country.  

Why should countries select you as the next DG?
The WHO needs a DG with broad experience, proven expertise and recognized skills as a leader.

I have worked in global health for over 40 years, across more than 50 countries. I have been a community worker, clinician, educator, project manager, coordinator, leader, adviser and envoy across many cultures and in different political settings. I consistently focus on health equity and on impact. I bring people with me and ensure they are credited for successes achieved.

I have led humanitarian and health responses to major emergencies like Avian influenza globally and Ebola in West Africa: I fostered the movement for scaling up nutrition, nurtured the UN’s work on sustainable development and climate change, and initiated efforts for rolling back malaria.

I have led organizations that tackle diverse issues—at local, national or global level. I have earned the confidence of investors and mobilize funds for priority actions. I have consistently drawn on science to underpin program decisions. I am a creative innovator—always seeking the most appropriate and workable solutions, taking on difficult issues and working through them. These are leadership capabilities that WHO needs at this time.

I am delighted to have been proposed by the UK Government to be the Director General of WHO. It is a role that I am ready to fulfil. I will serve WHO’s member states in an open and transparent manner and be fully accountable for my actions as an international public servant. It would be an honor and a privilege to be given the opportunity to serve in this role. I have been training for this role throughout my entire life.

How do you respond to people who argue that it’s time for a DG from a low- or middle-income country?
All candidates must be judged solely on their skills and experience. The WHO is at a critical juncture, and it is too important to play politics with this decision. With changing climates, violent conflict, persistent poverty and mass migration people now face an ever-growing avalanche of threats to their health.

The WHO needs strong and effective leadership now, more than ever.

I have worked in more than 50 countries, the majority of which have been developing countries —and I understand what underpins the health of people across the world. I also understand how the system works, and how to get the best results for the health and wellbeing of real people.

I can understand why some are of the view that it is “the turn of region X to lead the WHO.” However, diseases and outbreaks don’t take turns. They don’t operate in an ordered, strategic fashion, they can affect the same countries, the same regions time and time again, decimating populations and communities.

If the Member States who are choosing the next Director-General want someone who has a track record, experience and expertise based on work in multiple countries, who has skills as a clinician and international public servant, who is a medical doctor with expertise in getting the UN and partners to work together, who has experience of successfully managing major disease outbreaks, and who has demonstrated capacity for mobilizing resources and managing staff in international organizations, then I am ready to take on the role from day one.

It is the role I have been training for my entire life.

What 1 thing have you done that best qualifies you to be DG?
Over the 40 years I have been qualified as a doctor, I have worked in more than 50 countries—as a clinician, teacher, development professional, manager, adviser and coordinator at all levels from community action to policymaking, now leading multinational responses to international health crisis like Ebola and avian influenza.

I have the capacity to develop the kinds of strategies that the WHO needs when addressing complex challenges in public health and health systems, as well as threats associated with war, climate change and disasters. I will be able to help WHO regain the trust of Member States and mobilize the resources it needs to function. I will be able to lead the culture changes and management transformations required for WHO to become a modern multilateral entity. I am well qualified to make sure that WHO has an impartial and humanitarian response to health emergencies and outbreaks. I have demonstrated these capabilities throughout my professional life and am ready to use them in service of the WHO and world health.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Read other installments of Global Health NOW’s 4-part Q&A with David Nabarro here

See the recent GHN Q&A series with DG candidate Sania Nishtar here.  

Join the thousands of subscribers who rely on Global Health NOW summaries and exclusive articles for the latest public health news. Sign up for our free weekday enewsletter, and please share the link with friends and colleagues: Subscribe to GHN

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David Nabarro visiting Freetown, Sierra Leone in 2014, as the Special Envoy on Ebola. UNMEER/Simon Ruf via Flickr/Creative Commons License