By Kamran Rehmat
Every candidate at this level promises half the world, but in the case of this distinguished daughter of Pakistan, the rainbow has a certain verve and vibrancy. One look at her spectacular achievements, reach and vision and the conclusion that she is essentially, a global citizen is inescapable.
Dr Sania Nishtar is on the last legs of an exciting, if exacting, campaign — which brought her to Doha last week — to head the World Health Organisation as its Director General in the near future.
Speaking to Gulf Times, a supremely confident Nishtar underpins her diverse and rich experience as a medical doctor, researcher, former federal minister and civil society leader to make her case.
For someone, who has led many multilateral initiatives, founded civil society organisations from scratch and is imbued with the ability to speak “truth to power” — helped by a robust transparency and accountability vow — these are rich ingredients for the coveted candidature.
Nishtar is at her exuberant best when putting forth her Vision for a new WHO; extrapolating what is at the heart of that reform agenda; and, on a lighter note, if it’s easy to remember how many awards and accolades she has won during a fulfilling journey from the pangs of losing her father at 15.
When did you first conceive the idea of running for DG WHO?
The candidature was launched in early 2016 with the Government of Pakistan hosting events worldwide; there are different aspects to the campaign — there’s the diplomatic outreach by the government to their counterparts and, then, it is my interactions with member states to present my Vision for a new WHO.
I meet member state delegations during WHO regional meetings, conferences and during visits to capitals. Actually, it’s a two way interaction: I listen to their views and expectations of where WHO ought to be and put across mine and this helps me build further on my Vision.
This time around, the election is being held under a new process so there is an opportunity of candidates’ fora. It is a much open process.
In all, six countries launched their candidates, including France, Hungary, Italy, Great Britain, Ethiopia and Pakistan. In the first round of the elections held in January this year, three candidates (from Great Britain and Ethiopia, apart from Pakistan) were shortlisted.
What single factor — let’s say, X factor — do you think makes your pitch different from the competition?
There are many factors, but foremost is the breadth and diversity of my experience. I have very broad-based exposure at a high government level; am the only candidate with a civil society background; am a medical doctor with a research background; have deep exposure at a multilateral system and chaired UN panels and committees.
On the other hand, I have the experience of building institutions from scratch. In my past professional life, I’ve been committed to all those attributes which are central to WHO — the whole gamut of transparency and accountability, and the ability to turn around reforms; pursue value for money, build partnerships; cost containment and delivery. I also come from a background of innovation (cites winning the Global Innovation Award) and co-chaired the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Health and Healthcare. Then, there’s the expertise in non-communicable diseases and healthcare systems which are new public health agendas (the Sustainable Development Goals).
In realistic terms, how confident are you of achieving the goal?
I’m very confident that I will make it because I have taken a very strong stance of transparency and accountability in the campaign. I’m not cutting any deals in the campaign whereas it is very common for candidates to be making deals with countries.
My government and I were the first ones to commit to making our campaign financing public — and it is there on the website. My campaign is not funded by any other entity. It’s a very transparently run campaign. I believe unless you come out of the campaign with cleans hands, you will not be able to change the organisation for the better. Because of this stance, a lot of countries are supporting me, and so, I remain very confident of achieving the goal.
Don’t you think it may be counterproductive if other candidates are going down the beaten track?
Well, we have to understand the context in which this election is taking place: WHO is a very critical agency. Let me give you the example of what happened in 1918; the Spanish flu, then, claimed more than 30 million lives. If such an epidemic were to take place today — where millions of people are travelling across continents every day — the whole world could be engulfed by such a pandemic within a matter of weeks with dire consequences for human and economic health.
It is WHO that has the mandate to protect against that kind of catastrophe. Besides, the world could go into a major recession if something of this sort were to happen. The member states do realise that deals constrain the ability to make changes that are required to meet these and other challenges. That is what makes me so confident of turning victorious.
Outside of Pakistan, which region have you particularly enjoyed the most support from?
I have not branded myself as a candidate of one region even though yes, it happens that in elections such as these, candidates often tie themselves to a region. I however, have projected myself as a global candidate and I continue to receive support from different parts of the world. I’m fighting this election on the basis of my credibility to bring change based on my past track record.
After nearly 70 years in business, do you think WHO has done enough to justify its existence?
It definitely has. WHO has played very important roles in the past; it’s the world’s only multilateral agency — the standard-setting global body in matters related to health. It has eradicated many diseases from the face of this Earth. It has played a very important convening role and continues to do that. It brings very valuable support to countries. It has had significant successes, which to be honest, people do not even know about or realise.
On a side note, this is why I have even committed to a new public relations wing as well so that people are made aware of the unsung successes. But having said that, there are serious gaps within the organisation and issues to be dealt with that have evolved over time and those issues are constraining its ability to deliver on its mandate, which is why there is a huge appetite for change.
Your vision for WHO is centred on 10 pledges; out of these, which, in your opinion, are the most important?
Those pledges are not mutually exclusive. Some of them are centred on reforming the organisation; others signal programmatic priorities. You cannot rack them in order of priority except the first one: transparency and accountability, which I have put in there on purpose. Transparency and a culture of delivery and accountability must be a central tenet in WHO’s framework.
You have listed “transparency and accountability in all areas” as your first vision goal. How realistic is it given the critique about WHO?
I think it is. Why should it not (be realistic)? I remain very confident given my background of upholding the highest spectrum of transparency throughout. In my role as a federal minister, I put all my decisions in the public domain, including my Handover Papers. Then, there is the multilateral fora and civil society experience that I bring to the table. I chaired the UN Independent Accountability Panel on Women and Children’s Health. It requires a certain commitment in public life and intent to do these things and I think if you’re fully committed, there’s no reason why you can’t succeed.
But given the organisational gaps, the intense lobbying by groups and the propensity to resist change anywhere in the world, especially if vested interests are involved, what makes you so confident of breaking the glass ceiling?
That’s a very good question. My counter question to that would be: Why can’t leaders, whose hands are clean, not make change? Your hands are tied when you cut deals. That is why making the electoral campaign financing public is something I hold to the highest probity.
You volunteered to make your electoral campaign financing public. Have your rivals done, too?
I was the first one to publish in black and white — in my vision document — that I would do so, and I believe that set the tone for change because it is completely unprecedented for this to happen in a UN election.
Can you explain the “new models for financing” that you have mentioned in your Vision paradigm?
Innovative financing traditionally refers to a number of non-traditional mechanisms to raise resources through direct funding appeals, promoting an earmarked levy or micro-contributions. However, I also feel that innovative financing measures can also be introduced across the value chain — mobilisation, channeling, allocation, pooling, implementation, tracking and accountability.
You have been a cardiologist, a federal minister, founder of Heartfile NGO, served in the UN and done so much more. Which of these roles have you enjoyed the most, and why?
I have enjoyed all roles for different reasons. When you work as a physician, you touch a human life very closely. As a minister, you can influence millions of lives through the stroke of your pen; and in the multilateral world, the norms you set, provide the frame of reference under which things happen all over the world. Each role is gratifying in its own right.
Who — or what — has been the single biggest influence on your life and career?
When my father died, I was only 15. We lived in Peshawar (capital of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province), which is a very patriarchal society, but he was a very progressive man and wanted all his three daughters to be educated and actively encouraged sport, as a result of which I became accomplished in golf. Even though he died very young, his vision had a lasting impression. And then our mother brought us up singlehandedly, helping us pursue our aspirations. Both bequeathed positive influences.
Do you remember the list of all your awards, given its vertical reach? Which one/s means the most to you?
(Smiles) Every award has its own significance and given for a different reason. You feel very honoured when your country recognises you; Sitara-e-Imtiaz (the star-performer in Pakistan) was very humbling. The Global Innovation Award, too, meant a lot.
You were also named as one of the top 20 Women Scientists in the Muslim World in 2014…
Yes, that was for policy-making, actually. On a different note, my election would also be crucial for showcasing the progressive contribution of women in our society.
How was your visit to Doha? Are you hopeful of gaining support from the Gulf region?
I had a very good meeting with Minister of Public Health HE Dr Hanan Mohamed al-Kuwari, presenting my candidature and sharing my vision for a new WHO. I remain very confident of their support and I have been humbled by the backing I’m receiving from every region of the world.
What is your average day like since stepping down from a number of key public sector positions to follow your candidacy?
Hectic. I’m on an international flight virtually every other day, covering one country a day, meeting governments, getting to see health facilities on the ground, engaging with civil society, speaking at events, virtually connecting with the campaign office and speaking to Pakistan’s diplomats all over the world, who are busy promoting the candidature. I make myself available to the media so that they can get to know me first hand. This is an exciting time, as you can imagine.
I try and use every minute of my campaign travels to prepare for the role of DG WHO.
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