We spoke with David Nabarro, the man you've never heard of who could lead the world's top health organisation

We’re about halfway through an election that will decide who will be the leader of the World Health Organisation, a group that’s responsible for worldwide public health policies.

The election is for the spot of director general, which has been held by Dr. Margaret Chan for the past 10 years. The person who fills her seat starting at the end of June will be responsible for everything from responding to epidemics such as Ebola and Zika to setting up preventive measures meant to keep the world healthy.

Up for the job are six candidates, one of whom, David Nabarro, Business Insider got the chance to sit down with.

  • David Nabarro, special adviser to the secretary general of the UN
  • Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, former minister of foreign affairs and minister of health to Ethiopia
  • Flavia Bustreo, who is currently on leave from her role as assistant director-general of Family, Women’s & Children’s Health at the WHO
  • Philippe Douste-Blazy, a French politician who’s served as a UN under-secretary-general and special adviser on innovative financing for development
  • Sania Nishtar, former federal minister of Pakistan, who helped establish the country’s ministry of health
  • Miklós Szócska, former minister of state for health of Hungary

Nabarro told Business Insider that this is the first time the WHO is going through the eight-month election process. At the end of January, the six candidates will be whittled down to five and then three, who will remain in the race until May. Nabarro, who is still holding his post leading the UN’s response to the cholera outbreak in Haiti, said he campaigns to WHO member states when he’s not doing his day job.

We spoke to Nabarro to get a better sense of the election process and why he decided to throw his hat in the ring back in September. Nabarro explained where he expects the WHO to be in five years, if elected, and what it’s going to take to turn it into a more dependable, catalytic organisation.

Making the WHO more predictable

The WHO lost a lot of trust in the aftermath of the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Nabarro said his hope is to make sure that doesn’t happen again.

To get back that confidence, Nabarro has a seemingly simple solution: running drills. “You can’t prepare for emergencies of any kind, like a natural disaster or a bad fire or explosion or something without doing drills.”

Having those drills fresh in people’s minds could help WHO and its member states prepare for the next big outbreak of yellow fever, or Zika, or some other emerging virus.

“There is no other multinational entity that could deal with health crises that is outbreaks of pathogens that are either known but rare, and dangerous or unknown and appear out of the blue like some of the influenza viruses,” Nabarro said. Bird flu, in particular, has been one of the outbreaks Nabarro has dealt with in his career in public health. “Having an organisation that’s proven its confidence is vital.”

Viewing the WHO as a ‘guardian angel’

One of the biggest misconceptions people have about the WHO, Nabarro said, is that people don’t know that it exists, or if they know it does, only knows about its work tackling infectious disease (in reality, the WHO works on a wide array of public health issues, from the environment to noncommunicable diseases). And that’s something he’s OK with.

“The job that I want to take forward is one of making sure the WHO — which is a small organisation with a budget less than a big New York hospital — is an organisation that’s relevant to every citizen in the world. They don’t necessarily have to know that that relevance is due to the World Health Organisation, but I want WHO’s influence to touch everyone.”

To pull that off, Nabarro said he wants to see the WHO’s role change into something more catalytic, prompting national governments to take on more responsibility than they are now. That way, the WHO can better use its budget.

In particular, Nabarro wants the WHO to alert the world, as a “guardian angel” to the health effects associated with obesity, in much the same way that the WHO called out tobacco in the 1990s.

“There’s nobody else that you can count on to sound the alarm,” Nabarro said. “Having now seen and studied the extent of obesity and looked at some of the analyses of the consequences of obesity in later life, I actually think that’s where the world needs WHO badly.”

If Nabarro makes it to the top 3, he plans to take more time off to campaign until the May vote.

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