Sunday July 14, 2024

Why I’m backing Dr Sania Nishtar

By Shahina Maqbool
May 20, 2017


Being a senior health journalist contributing almost every day to Pakistan’s largest English newspaper during the last 27 years, there is hardly any health issue in the country that has not gone through my pen. In the process, I have also widely interacted with most health personalities in Pakistan, including Dr Sania Nishtar, one of the three finalists and nominees for Director General of the World Health Organisation (WHO).

As an objective journalist, I have been watching the election process for some time now, and feel it is an obligation to contribute by sharing my opinion about Dr Sania. Having known her for almost two decades, I feel the need to do so because information about her in the public domain does not do full justice to her intellect, ability, character, drive and interpersonal and political skills.

In the interest of full disclosure, I would also like to mention that I have, on several occasions, free lanced with Dr Sania Nishtar’s NGO, as I have with many other groups in Pakistan on health matters, editing manuscripts and overseeing publications.

Much has been written about Dr Sania’s outstanding technical capabilities and the fact that she has the combination of background as medical doctor, minister, civil society leader, multilateral expert, institution builder and thought leader, uniquely positioned to lead WHO. Her attributes are clearly reflective in her 38-page CV. So let me focus on her character, which makes her an exceptional candidate and by far the best candidate to lead the WHO at this time of great need to rebuild trust.

Dr Sania inspires trust. Full stop. She is widely recognised as a voice of reason, honesty, and integrity. Her unflinching commitment to transparency inspires confidence. I have heard her advocate on the most complex situations of corruption and dysfunctional governance with clarity of vision, problem-solving and honesty. She has a unique talent for engaging all stakeholders, bringing each to contribute in their most effective way while holding on to highest standards of transparency and accountability and without compromising on values and ethics.

Dr Sania is a workaholic, working long hours with seemingly boundless energy and commitment. She has an exceptional ability to implement efficiently and effectively — to get things done. Throughout her professional life, I have seen her following a fast-track course to reach goals. She neither fails nor falters. She always finds a path to ethical progress, and she never gives up.

Dr Sania is also a compassionate human being; her actions speak louder than words. She feels the pain of the poor and the ailing. She has developed an insatiable yearning to help humanity, and amongst other things, this is what prompted her to initiate an innovative health financing project, a pro-poor initiative that protects non-affording patients from foregoing care.

Dr Sania is a compelling and charismatic orator. When I heard her speak for the first time, I couldn’t believe how articulate, convincing, and inspiring she was — and all from memory. At the close of the event, I walked up to her for a copy of her speech, only to receive a piece of paper on which she had scribbled something that could hardly be deciphered. “You will not be able to make any sense of this,” she politely stated while her characteristic smile. I stood awed by her obvious command of the issues, the complications and the solutions.

Even though she possesses leadership qualities that few professionals can match, Dr Sania is one of the humblest leaders I have ever met. She also, therefore, leads from a place of humility. I cannot recollect a single occasion when she did not offer me her own office chair each time we had to work jointly on a document. She has a warm disposition and is a great leader.

The discourse around the qualities of the new Director General centres on the importance of both technical and political competencies. As already mentioned, Dr Sania’s technical astuteness comes through clearly in her resume. In relation to the political role, I have seen firsthand, how politically savvy she is and how effective a negotiator she can be, managing diverse groups with polarised opinions. She can skillfully bring people to a point of convergence whilst engaging every stakeholder in a way that maximizes their strength.

The manner in which Dr Sania conducted herself in 2013 during her ministerial term speaks volumes, not just about her integrity but also about her political ability. Since then, and after a relatively brief period in office, she has become an icon of transparency and accountability in Pakistan. Her leadership in re-establishing the country’s Ministry of Health after a constitutional abolishment and the handling of media, parliamentarians, technical groups, and international audiences during that bold decision exemplifies her political leadership. I have been following experts speak about the importance of political capabilities for the next DG and I can’t think of anyone who combines these more than her.

Dr Sania is a great professional and the most impressive leader I have ever seen. I always get carried away when describing her — but anyone who knows her well enough would. She’s been an inspiration to me throughout my career and it’s important she wins next week for the sake of humanity.