Negotiating Change

Mohammed Mohammedi (IMHL’19) had more than 25 years of public health experience under his belt when he enrolled in the International Masters for Health Leadership (IMHL) program at McGill University. Initially, the French-born engineer joined the staff of Doctors Without Borders as an alternative to serving in the army. He discovered his calling when he witnessed the power of vaccinations to save lives. “Vaccines are the single most cost-effective intervention in public health,” affirms Mohammed. “Each vaccine costs a few cents compared to hundreds of dollars of treatment. After all these years, I’m still excited to be a part of this effort to eradicate disease.”

In two decades at the World Health Organization (WHO), Mohammed has played a pivotal role in eradicating polio in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan, Djibouti, and Chad as a member of the organization’s Global Polio Eradication Initiative. After achieving resounding success, his team’s efforts faltered in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the last two countries with cases of polio. From Mohammed’s perspective, a crowded field of organizations, donors, and staff members created a bureaucratic tangle that prevented grassroots efforts from succeeding.

“Polio eradication is a ground game,” he explains. “You move to an area, clean it out, and move on. What was happening in Pakistan was that people far from the field were trying to run things by email and overcomplicate the process with endless meetings and algorithms.”

Fighting burnout in Pakistan, Mohammed applied for the IMHL program at the urging of two program alumni who served in senior positions at the WHO. “They sparked a sense of curiosity,” he remembers. “Having gained so much experience in the field, I wanted to find out if my management skills were adequate. Now I know that I would have had a gap in my education if I hadn’t taken their advice.

Looking back, Mohammed credits the Ferring Fellowships in Health Leadership and the IMHL program for sharpening his abilities to build teams, optimize organizational structures, and lead in crisis situations. “I had already developed these skills, but I didn’t always know how to deploy them in a timely, effective way,” he says.

After graduation, Mohammed took up the mantle of polio eradication once again when he accepted a position as the Chief Immunization Officer for UNICEF in Afghanistan. Remembering the failure his WHO team experienced in Pakistan, Mohammed immediately reorganized the UNICEF office to improve efficiency at the grassroots level. “It was daunting to carve out a place for myself in senior management without having risen through the ranks at UNICEF,” he admits. “I encountered some resistance, but I used the tools I gained from the IMHL to manage grievances and move forward.”

Mohammed has also leaned heavily on the relationship management skills he honed in the IMHL program in a series of meetings with the Taliban in the early months of 2020. As he applies his expertise to some of the most complex negotiations of his career, he is confident that his mission will succeed where it stumbled years ago. “It won’t be long that we will eradicate polio in Afghanistan,” he says. “Take my word for it.”

Article written by: Ashley Rabinovitch
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