British pick for WHO head described by some colleagues as controlling, abrasive

Dr. David Nabarro (UN Photo/Loey Felipe)

By William Davison for The Messenger 


Former colleagues of the British government’s candidate for the top job at the World Health Organization (WHO) describe him as a skilled, intelligent manager but one who is also controlling and sometimes intimidating toward his staff.

David Nabarro, a medical doctor who has held several high-level United Nations positions, is running in an election in Geneva this week against Pakistan’s former health minister Sania Nishtar and Ethiopia’s Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, also previously a health minister.

A half dozen interviews with former colleagues and associates shed some light on the complex character behind the UK’s pick for the post of world’s top doctor — one who is described alternately as ‘genius,’ ‘ruthless,’ ‘moody’, invariably ambitious, and sometimes – allegedly – outright abusive or intimidating. Nabarro himself denies that he has any history of significant tensions with colleagues or members of his staff.

Delegates from 194 member states will elect the next WHO Director-General on May 23rd. The outgoing head is Margaret Chan from China, who served two five-year terms. The Geneva-based organization establishes global health standards, helps set research agendas, and coordinates responses to medical emergencies, such as bird flu and Ebola. It was criticized for what was perceived as a sluggish response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa that killed more than 11,000 people from 2014 to 2016. The WHO’s proposed program budget for 2018-19 is $4.4 billion.

Dutch development economist and former UNICEF country director Rolf Carriere first met Nabarro in the mid-1980s in Nepal when Nabarro was working for Save the Children and then, occasionally, in subsequent decades. “What struck me was his total lack of humility or, to put it differently, his arrogance,” he said. These encounters made him skeptical of a relationship with Nabarro and the WHO in 2002 when Carriere was initially given $70 million by the Gates Foundation to set up the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), aimed at fortifying food.

According to Carriere, Nabarro, who then was responsible for nutrition at the WHO, tried to grab control. Carriere resisted, and there was a power struggle. “Nabarro’s reputation is for being authoritarian, sometimes ruthless, shouting, and he ignores people if he doesn’t see any use to them. These are not the kind of characteristics you’re looking for in a WHO Director-General,” he said.

For his part, Nabarro acknowledges that there was some dispute over how to structure GAIN within the WHO, but insists that he supported a multi-agency approach and didn’t try to ensure his department controlled the alliance. “That was not my point of view at all,” he said.

Many who’ve worked with Nabarro describe him as hard working, and a talented communicator, who excels at bringing people together to agree on how to tackle complex problems. “He’s a genius, he’s really charismatic,” said a source at the Scaling-Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement Secretariat in Geneva, a United Nations initiative he coordinated from September 2010 until August 2014.

“He’s a genius, he’s really charismatic.”

But the same source — who requested anonymity out of concern Nabarro could damage their career — also claimed that Nabarro had an ‘extreme personality’; he was wary of power moves by colleagues and he would sometimes work himself to exhaustion. “He was manipulative, moody. Sometimes you’d see he was close to the edge of collapse.”

In one incident, the British health official lost his cool at a meeting in 2000, a time when he was heading the WHO’s Roll Back Malaria (RBM) program. According to Amir Attaran, who was then a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) consultant and is now a Professor at the University of Ottawa’s Faculties of Law and Medicine, Nabarro was furious over an earlier MSF press release.

“From first look you could see Nabarro was angry. He went on a tear of highly profane, full-throated screaming over the course of around two minutes,” Attaran said.

At issue was a recent MSF press release that had criticized Nabarro’s RBM program for not recommending a switch to new drugs to combat malaria. Attaran says that Nabarro felt ‘stabbed in the back’ by the media coverage and was focused on his grievance with MSF rather than on the actual public health issues.

Nabarro recalls the incident differently, saying that he doesn’t swear in such settings, but that he did point out differences with MSF, saying the medical charity was wrong to campaign in the press at a time when negotiations were still taking place, and at a time the science was not settled.

Unhappy colleagues

Three colleagues of Nabarro at the SUN secretariat describe similar behaviour, pointing to concerns with his temperament. They say Nabarro intimidated staff.

This was echoed by a female manager at the WHO emergencies department. “It was awful. He was very abusive, especially towards women,” claimed the source who left the WHO in 2005 after disagreeing with Nabarro’s view that the WHO should deliver health services during emergencies, rather than oversee and coordinate responses. “He professionally harassed me, he humiliated me in public meetings, saying I was incompetent and things, but it was not that as much as he ruined my program,” she said.

The sources requested anonymity because of concerns that Nabarro, who is now an advisor to the UN secretary-general, could take retaliatory action. Nabarro, 67, denied all claims of abuse. “I absolutely don’t recall something that a person could describe as harassment being done by me,” he said in a phone interview on Friday from Geneva. “I’m sure there have been moments in my professional life when I’ve raised my voice, but it’s absolutely not behavior that I practice.”

Mukesh Kapila, a former UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Sudan who worked with Nabarro at the WHO and earlier at the UK’s aid agency, confirmed that the British nominee clashed with subordinates at the WHO where Nabarro held three senior positions from 1999 to 2005, particularly if they contradicted him, or a meeting didn’t go to plan.

Kapila, who is backing Nabarro’s rival Tedros Adhanom, slammed Nabarro as ‘manipulative’ and a ‘control freak,’ claiming his treatment of staff, particularly women, led to multiple complaints to the WHO ombudsman. “The net result of his behavior is that Nabarro has a very powerful network of people in all major global organizations. Some are afraid, some are grateful, but those who are grateful are also afraid,” he said.

“Nabarro has a very powerful network of people in all major global organizations.”

The former female WHO emergencies manager confirmed that at least one formal harassment complaint had been filed against Nabarro by a female employee in 2006 and that she had made a complaint about him to the ombudsman the year before. The WHO communications director Marsha Vanderford said the WHO doesn’t comment on matters involving the ombudsman. Nabarro said he didn’t recall such an incident.

Geneva job

Another concern was raised by the past and current workers from the SUN secretariat over Nabarro’s alleged role in inappropriately fast-tracking the promotion of a female agronomist originally seconded from the French government to the position of director of the secretariat in 2015.

The so-called D1 level vacancy was advertised for an unusually short two-week period in the second-half of December 2015 when people were on Christmas holidays and not checking for opportunities. “Everyone knew he had tailored it specifically for her,” a colleague said of the now director Florence Lasbennes.

“It was not a fair recruitment,” said the worker. “She did not have the experience, nor the qualifications, but she still got the job as David was pushing for it.” While the advertisement said that 10 years experience was required, D1 positions require a minimum of 15 years experience, according to the United Nations Careers website.

“No-one ever thought Florence could be director. It really is the coronation of a UN career. And nobody knew about the job vacancy until she announced her promotion,” a second colleague said about the role.

In an interview, Lasbennes denied anything inappropriate about the recruitment and said her promotion followed standard procedures. Asked about his role at SUN, which he was no longer coordinating at the time of the hiring, Nabarro said he was not involved in Lasbennes’ recruitment, but still had some authority over the secretariat then in his role as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Food Security and Nutrition.

Speaking from Geneva on Friday, Nabarro dismissed questions about his temperament and allegations raised by other sources interviewed for this report, saying that his record and achievements speak to his character, as do his many strong relationships with former and current workers.

“I would not have been deliberately picked up by (senior UN and WHO leaders) and given top jobs, which involved high stakes working, with a lot of media contact, a lot of dealing with political leaders, and driving tricky issues through, with extraordinary loyalty among former and current staff, if I was the kind of person who made a habit of having very difficult rows with partners, or had a history and notoriety of causing disturbance among staff,” he said.

Endorsement by UK Prime Minister

Nabarro has the confidence of UK Prime Minister Theresa May, who said in a statement, “I have no doubt at all that Dr David Nabarro is the best candidate for the next Direct-General of the World Health Organization, and I am proud to be supporting him. Dr Nabarro is a medical doctor with decades of experience working in global and national health systems. He has shown leadership on the front line during crises, and at the top levels of the UN.”

The U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office is also supporting Nabarro’s candidacy politically and financially, which includes assigning three civil servants to work full-time on the campaign.

In the meantime, Nabarro’s rival Dr. Tedros of Ethiopia has faced scrutiny in the press in recent weeks, amid accusations from a Nabarro associate that he covered up three cholera outbreaks in Ethiopia from 2006 to 2011 when minister. The Ethiopian candidate also faced criticism over the Ethiopian government allowing cigarette advertising and for a tobacco privatization deal in a letter from the director of the Africa Tobacco-Free Initiative published in The Lancet. Both incidents came after Tedros’ spell as health minister, which ended in 2012. The British medical journal’s director, Richard Horton, is part of Nabarro’s Support Team, according to leaked emails.

Nabarro’s positions before he took time off to campaign were Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Climate Change and the previously mentioned food security and nutrition role. He was also the UN System Senior Coordinator for Avian and Human Influenza from 2005 to 2014 and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Special Envoy for Ebola from 2014 to 2015.


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