Modest proposal: Make Dr Shambhu Acharya the health minister of Nepal

The government of Nepal should have done more to ensure the victory of Dr Acharya in WHO SEARO, which it did not. But Prime Minister Dahal can still appoint him as the Minister of Health.

Dr Sambhu Acharya

Simone Galimberti

  • Read Time 4 min.

This piece makes a simple, straightforward proposition: Make Dr Shambhu Acharya, Minister of Health or somebody who can make a difference in Nepal’s health sector. Its premise is that Nepal did everything possible to ensure that Dr Acharya could get elected to the position of World Health Organization South East Asia Regional Director.

Why not, then, leveraging on his international repute and know-how and put them at use for the higher interests of the nation? Considering the vast power that regional Directors hold within the complex bureaucracy of the WHO, his candidacy was ambitious but also, considering his experience, very doable.

He should have “brought it home” and he would have made it if the competition had been truly fair. The reality is that, from the outset, insiders knew the risks of running against a formidable candidate like Saima Wazed of Bangladesh. Saima Wazed was not formidable because of her expertise but because of the fact that she is the daughter of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

The government of Nepal should have done more to ensure the victory of Dr Acharya, no doubt about it. But it is time to move forward. That’s why Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal should make a bold call and appoint him as the Minister of Health and Population.

Certainly, for someone like Dr Acharya returning to Nepal would entail several considerable risks. Not only in terms of losing his perks as high-level UN officer, including a nice life on the Genève lake. I am also referring to him taking a huge gamble in terms of putting his international stature and the credibility he achieved along the years, at jeopardy.

That’s why PM Dahal should not only propose him as Minister of Health and Population that, as per now, is, unfortunately, of secondary nature within the cabinet. The Prime Minister should appoint him also as Deputy Prime Minister in charge of overseeing the whole spectrum of portfolios related to human development and human prosperity.  This would also entail a strong involvement across all domains of policy making. The idea, basically, is to make Dr Acharya, the key focal point, within the government, for the SDGs, someone who can greatly help bring to life the ambitious Agenda 2030. Who better than someone with decades of experience within the UN System can help drive Nepal towards a more equal, equitable, sustainable future?

It is granted that the health and population portfolio will require a lot of “intensive care” work on the part of Dr Acharya. Nepal still needs to develop a proper National Health System, creating a strong network of public hospitals and clinics around the country. This will be possible only if an equitable and sustainable cooperative framework between the federal government and the provinces is established, a juggernaut task itself. Then, there is the scale up of the National Health Insurance that is still a chimera. Moreover, let’s not forget that future pandemic preparedness is also an area that will also demand a lot of effort.

On top of all these hard tasks, another priority would be to bring on board the private sector in complementing the creation of a strong public private system. Ethical practices, quality care, funding and reimbursements, the latter especially related to the National Health Insurance, are only some of the key central points to be agreed upon with private hospitals. In short, a “would be” Dr Acharya as next Health Minister would have a lot on his plate.

Perhaps Dr Achairya should not be in such a rush to prepare his luggage to return to Geneva. Perhaps it is time for him to extend his special leave.

Still there is no doubt that someone like him can also contribute across the board. That’s why having him appointed as the “Agenda 2030 Czar” makes total sense. From education to social inclusion to zero net transition, Nepal needs to do whatever it takes to realize the ambitious SDGs.  Otherwise the risk is for Nepal to become a lower middle-income country whose success story will be very limited.

A nation that despite the apparent achievements, will remain stubbornly “broken” on many fronts, a nation, in short, unable to fulfill the rights and the hidden potential of millions of its citizens. Dr Acharya can help avoid this scenario.

Moreover, the position of Deputy Prime Minister would also be not only very fitting but also very deserving for him. It would represent the culmination of his career, potentially much more significant and life-saving than what the role he was vying for at the WHO would have offered. Mohan Bahadur Basnet, the current Health Minister, could be repositioned within the government in a different role, possibly allowing him to work closely with Dr Acharya. I am sure he will be happy to have Dr Acharya taking over his ministry.

Now a final element of uncertainty and a possible solution to it. Why should someone like Dr Acharya accept this double appointment considering the chronic instability of governments in the country? No one, after all, really knows how long this current administration will last. One issue is the government might collapse even though the Dahal-Deuba entente appears so solid. One way to brush aside this concern is the involvement of the main opposition parties. KP Oli, chairman of the UML and Rabi Lamichhane, the chair of RSP, should be brought into the discussions in a way to have their formal commitment to retain Dr Acharya in his role even if there would be a government change in the days ahead.

This would mean assuring the people of this nation that they will have a very competent policymaker with a high level of integrity in a position to do some good things. 

Perhaps Dr Acharya should not be in such a rush to prepare his luggage to return to Geneva. Perhaps it is time for him to extend his special leave.

Simone Galimberti is the pro-bono co-founder of ENGAGE and The Good Leadership. Views are personal.