Outgoing WHO Rep walks down memory lane

08 December 2017, Harare - THE INTERVIEW: Sifelani Tsiko (The Herald Zimbabwe) with outgoing WHO Representative in Zimbabwe, Dr. David Okello 

Dr.Okello_3_0.jpgDr David Okello’s (pictured) tenure as the World Health Organization Representative in Zimbabwe comes to an end this month after serving the country for five years. During his tenure, the WHO enjoyed good working relations with the Government which saw him providing policy advice on matters of health and development, and directing the work of WHO in the country. In the report, Sifelani Tsiko (ST) the Herald Zimbabwe senior writer speaks to Dr Okello (DO) about his eventful stay in Zimbabwe.

ST: Your five-year tenure of office is coming to an end. How would you describe your tenure here in Zimbabwe?

DO: My tenure of office in Zimbabwe has been a very happy one, fully engaging and extremely productive. During my stay in the country, I met great people with vast talents across all professional disciplines. I appreciate the hospitality and friendship found abundant in this beautiful country. I am at a loss for words to explain my profound gratitude. When I arrived in Zimbabwe slightly over five years ago there was a UN media debate on what to do about maternal mortality figures which were frightening — Zimbabwe was losing so many women. I do remember saying pregnancy though associated with some risks, is not a disease; but a natural phenomenon that should not be a death trap.

Some Ministry of Health and Child Care (MOHCC) officials were saying women were dying because of unavailability of blood. The Health Transition Fund (HTF) had money for procurement of medicines only. My very first and rather forceful intervention was to say the same funds should be used to buy blood to stop women from dying whilst having a baby, which is the future of any country. Together with some civil society activists, we waged a campaign to ensure blood is included in commodities under HTF. Over the years the numbers of women dying during childbirth have dropped significantly which I believe I contributed towards.

ST: What would you regard as some of the major achievements you made to Zimbabwe and Africa as a whole?

DO: Achievements can be difficult to attribute to individual efforts, as my role remains to trigger actions from other players. But I remain extremely content by the story of a 10-year-old boy who attended a speech I gave at a UN Wellness Day, three years ago. At that function, I narrated my experience when I go for church service on Sundays in the middle of Harare City.

Wherever we get out of the church, all the well-to-do families drive their children to the nearby fast food stores, where they engorge themselves fully with salty and oily chicken parts, and sugar rich drinks. I told the fully packed audience at the UN function that these very popular foods and drinks are very dangerous and bad for health. I said this habit must stop.

The following Sunday, the 10-year-old boy vehemently refused his grandmother to take him to Nandos. The boy told her to adhere to WHO advise on safe foods — to avoid highly refined foods rich in saturated oils, salts and sugar. He requested instead to be taken home to eat sadza and vegetables. The grandmother was surprised, but happy to save her meagre dollar coins.

I have no means of envisaging the impact of my advice and what people take and use from my public statements in media events, workshops and from my public lectures. But I was thrilled by the story of this boy. I surely must have influenced many people out there.

I have played my role as the leader of WHO in the country in three specific areas: 1. Ensuring WHO’s effective health leadership at the national level by: ( i.) Convening national as well as international stakeholders, (ii.) Engaging effectively in partnerships to promote WHO’s health agenda of facilitating and supporting the achievement of quality health services for all, and (iii.) Enhancing WHO’s image and visibility in the country; 2. Acting as the lead technical advisor to the Ministry of Health, other related Ministries and other national and international partners on public health issues, strategies, priorities and programmes, with an emphasis on integrated, multi-sectoral approaches in order to build the capacities of national systems to address public health challenges in the country; and 3. Leading the WHO country team in ensuring the optimal use of WHO financial, technical, logistics and human resources through efficient and effective team management of the country office and country team;

We have helped the country raise funds to sustain important public health programmes. For instance, WHO led the development of Global Fund grants applications and the subsequent negotiation processes. The Global Fund is one of the key financiers of the HIV response in Zimbabwe. To date about 1 million of the estimated 1,3 million people living with HIV (PLHIV) are on ART. Cumulatively, the Global Fund has disbursed some $837 942 716 for the HIV response in Zimbabwe. As WHO we played a major role in this.

Read the full interview by clicking on the following link: The Herald Zimbabwe