Nepal has nominated a dynamic leader in public health, Dr. Shambhu Prasad Acharya, as the candidate for the post of regional director of the World Health Organisation (WHO) South East Asia Region (SEAR). The government has intensified lobbying for Dr. Acharya to get him elected to the post. He has been working with the WHO for more than two decades and is the incumbent Director at its Headquarters in Geneva. He specialises in UN health policies, programmes and budget while also having good skills in monitoring, negotiations and cooperation. He has served in supervisory roles at the WHO for more than two and a half decades and led the analysis of the health implications of the economic crisis that devastated the East Asian economies and played an instrumental role in establishing the Asia-Pacific Health Economics Network on behalf of the WHO-SEAR Office. Dr. Acharya talked about the responsibilities of the post, his candidacy, preparations, and election agenda with Modnath Dhakal of The Rising Nepal. Excerpts:
What is the rationale behind Nepal's candidacy for the regional director of the WHO South East Asia Region (SEAR)?
Nepal has been a member of the WHO since the beginning and has kept health as high-level agenda in its plans and programmes. It has learned a lot about how health care, especially the primary one, could be improved. Meanwhile, Nepal faced lots of health challenges including pandemics and worked quite efficiently to combat them. The country has a huge pool of talent, and they need to be provided with good opportunities. Being at the leadership of the regional agency of the global health body, Nepal can contribute both to the regional as well as the national front.
Could you tell our readers about the nature and the responsibilities of the post?
This is a position called Regional Director, but institutionally at the WHO, it is called Chief Technical and Administrative, and it is an assistant secretary general level post of the United Nations. It oversees the WHO's health programmes in the regional office and eleven member countries. The agency coordinates and monitors the public health programmes in the region. It directly reports to the WHO regional committee and works under its guidance. It develops the vision and strategies for the region and ensures that there is effective monitoring of and accountability in the programmes and system. It provides necessary support to the member states and guides them in devising better strategies and policies for health sector expansion and development, and ensures that the programmes and plans are implemented according to the set rules and regulations. It also helps to bring in good practices in the region and forge regional collaborations on various aspects of health.
How does it help in Nepal's health policies and international health diplomacy?
Both concepts are of high importance. The WHO provides support in the formulation, implementation and monitoring of health policies and plans of every member country depending on the needs and demands. Providing policy support and technical advice are the core functions of the WHO. During the COVID-19 pandemic, health issues and challenges were not confined to a single country, and it showed us a need for international health diplomacy to control the spread of the disease and exchange ideas and supports. If such an event occurs again, how could this region tackle it collectively by working together and showing solidarity? With more than two and a half decades of experience at the WHO, I believe that I have the skills and competencies to manage regional issues as well as play a pivotal role in forging collaborations among the member nations during normal as well as challenging times.
You have a good knowledge and experience of managing large projects on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and related policies. Would it be helpful in your election drive?
I strongly believe that it should help. My width of experience expands in management, science, public health, academia, leadership, advisor, and high-level panels and forums. I had also served as a board member of the UN System Staff College. It gives me a wide range of experiences to cover a wide range of health areas, not only in the areas of public health per se but also in leadership, management, diplomacy and political considerations are the sectors where I can deliver well.
What are the preparations from the government, especially the Nepali missions in the south and East Asian nations and your side for the election?
The candidacy is nominated by the government. This is the position where public health leaders are elected so the governments take proactive roles in terms of advocacy and lobbying as well as negotiations with the other member countries.
Since I worked at the WHO Headquarters with the Director General, I know all the health ministers in this region, I am in regular contact with the ministers as well as high officials of the health ministers. Recently, I accompanied our Health Minister, Mohan Bahadur Basnet, to Gujrat, India, where G20 Health Ministers Meeting and Global Traditional Medicine Summit were happening. He introduced me to key personalities and we had discussions with them as well. Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ and Foreign Minister NP Saud have also been taking initiations to lobby for Nepal's candidate. The Health Minister has written letters to his counterparts in the countries in the region. Further contacts and dialogues will be organised soon. Meanwhile, I am also attending the UN General Assembly as a part of the government delegation where we can discuss the candidacy on the side-lines meetings with the leaders of the concerned countries. UNGA is suitable for high-level political advocacy.
Meanwhile, Bangladesh, which is also a Least Developed Country (LDC) and graduating along with Nepal in 2026, announced its candidacy for the same post. Shouldn't the two countries have come up with a single candidate since they are collaborating on multiple fronts in terms of economic and other areas?
The WHO is a multilateral agency and there is a trend of having multiple candidates for the post. Once, four countries had fielded their separate candidates for this post. Having a single candidate is a good idea but I don't think that's the right thing to do. I think each member should field their best candidates and let the process work. There have always been two or more candidates.
Could you share the schemes that you will implement if elected to the post of the Director of the WHO?
I have outlined my five priorities for the WHO South-East Asia Region during my term. They are promoting health and well-being approaches that impact population health, accelerating universal health coverage with strong, inclusive primary health care to achieve health-related sustainable development goals, preparing for and protecting from future pandemics and emergencies, and innovating and digitising to accelerate health equity and solidarity.
I have proposed to learn and share lessons on meaningful community engagement, advocate and provide tools for results-driven multi-sectorial responses, make climate change, planetary health and decarbonising the health system a priority, and support member states to address the social, economic and commercial determinants of health. Likewise, mobilising increased investments for health, expanding, supporting and retaining a high-quality health workforce in the region, scaling up services to address non-communicable diseases and ensuring a high-quality continuum of care for all people will be the areas of my work.
Likewise, enhancing the surveillance system, establishing a regional rapid health response team, addressing antimicrobial resistance, increasing health care quality, harnessing digitisation and strengthening data generation as well as use are my promises. I would also like to promote regional leadership in global decision-making and establish and capitalise on a regional health fund.