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Dr Jean Jacques Frere

Senior Advisor Governance, USAID Asia Bureau at Public Health Institute endorses Dr David Nabarro as next Director-General of the World Health Organization.

Dr David Nabarro's role and actions in Baghdad when he was in charge of the WHO Health Action in Crisis unit, are perhaps less well known.

David Nabarro and I followed, in many ways, parallel career tracks: Save the Children, then DfID, WHO and the UN for David while I joined similar organizations while also leading several development projects between appointments. It was in no way surprising that we would end up working together on global health issues such as Pandemic Influenza preparedness, the Ebola response and, under rather dramatic circumstances, on the reconstruction of the health sector in Iraq within a few weeks of the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime during the second Iraq War.

All of us who have had an opportunity to work for or with David have praised his ability to engage in a dialogue with decision-makers, build a consensus and to lead a coherent, effective and inclusive response to a complex situation as was the case with the 2014-2015 Ebola epidemic in West Africa. His role and actions in Baghdad when he was in charge of the WHO Health Action in Crisis unit, are perhaps less well known.

When we met, David already had an impressive reputation of competency and impeccable professional integrity, energy and dedication, as well as a solid track record of his strong leadership skills.
We started our work on the Iraq health sector in early 2003. We had traveled back and forth from Geneva to Washington, to New York, Cairo, Amman and Baghdad. David was the ideal choice to coordinate and lead the multi-donor assessment: he was widely known in international development circles, and more importantly knew how to operate in a complex environment that involved several institutions with different-and sometimes competing-agendas, powerful individuals, and that was submitted to strong political pressure.

In August 2003 in Baghdad, there were no ordinary days. August 19th was no exception. We had been able to organize an extremely productive round table gathering Iraqi partners, donors from several institutions, and officials from the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority and the US military in the ambient chaos of what was left of the Iraqi Ministry of Health. Having the Iraqi stakeholders, the UN, bilateral donors and representatives of the occupying forces engaged in a constructive way around a common goal was in itself a remarkable achievement under the circumstances and the climate of mistrust that prevailed at the time. David's contribution was critical to make this happen.

I clearly remember when toward the end of the afternoon he and I rode in the same WHO vehicle to the Canal Hotel which was the building used by several UN Agencies in Baghdad. David was trying to organize a separate meeting and I was simply checking my e-mail when the suicide attack took place. We both miraculously survived. Many of our friends and colleagues were not that lucky including the UNSG Special Envoy, Sergio de Mello who was killed during the attack. I was cut by glass in several places but knew that these injuries were only painful but not life-threatening. I remember darkness, the smell of explosives, smoke, falling ceilings, shouts of panic, moans. The difficult part was to extract myself from the building, instinctively looking for light and an exit. Once out, I saw that David was already at work, trying to organize emergency care before the arrival of US paramedics, counting his staff and colleagues, gathering information and documenting the scene by taking pictures, bravely re-entering the half–destroyed building looking for survivors.

This was the beginning of a long and dramatic night with more bad news coming about our colleagues who did not make it, the visit of several hospitals in Baghdad to receive treatment and locate people we knew and worked with. We were also answering questions from the international media, and finally there was a ride back to our hotel in the dark and lugubrious streets of Baghdad. Once again, I shared David’s WHO car. We did not talk much, exhausted, the effects of the adrenaline surge fading away, thinking about the unknown fate of people we had spoken with a few minutes before the explosion. I distinctly remember that I could not refrain from thinking that we might then be shot on sight for violating the curfew….Both very tired, we separated at the hotel, complying with our respective organizations instructions’ for evacuation. I know that David stayed behind with the UN Humanitarian Coordinator to help locate staff that were not accounted for and to seek medevacs for those who were badly injured.

In retrospect, it seems that the drama we had been through only reinforced our determination to keep working on Iraq. A few weeks later we were back into action: David was chairing one of several round tables where I represented my Organization: David displayed his usual mix of effectiveness, authority, competency and courtesy. Reconstruction and technical assistance projects followed.

Dr Jean Jacques Frere

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