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Moving offices – changing jobs

Dr Howard Sobel talks about his experience of moving between jobs under the WPRO mobility and rotation policy.

The United Nations Joint Inspection Unit, in its report JIU/REP/2012/6, praised the mobility and rotation policy which has been in place in the WHO Western Pacific Region since 2009, recommending that the Organization draw on it in developing a global mobility policy. Over the last three years, 36 staff have been able to move within that Region thanks to the mobility policy. Here’s how one staff member, Dr Howard Sobel, describes his recent experience of moving from the country office in the Philippines to the country office in Cambodia and then to the Regional Office of the Western Pacific.

Portrait of Dr Howard Sobel.

Dr Howard Sobel has been with WHO since 1999 with a few years break when he worked for a Washington D.C based NGO, a refugee camp in Uganda and as an instructor at Johns Hopkins. At WHO he has worked at Headquarters, at country offices in Guyana, Cambodia and the Philippines. He is now working in the Regional Office of the Western Pacific.

Tell us a little bit about yourself. What’s your background? How long have you worked in WHO?

Dr Howard Sobel (HS): I’m an internist, a pediatrician and a preventive medicine doctor – three trainings. I started working with WHO in Guyana in 1999 where I was the EPI [expanded programme on immunization] officer. I did maternal and child health as well; as often happens at the country level, you usually do more than just one sort of job.

So you started out in Guyana but where did you move afterwards?

HS: After Guyana I worked in an NGO in Washington D.C., and then in a refugee camp in northern Uganda. Later I worked as an instructor at Johns Hopkins University. I rejoined WHO and worked in Geneva from 2001-2003 in the HIV department. In 2003 I moved to the WHO country office in the Philippines for EPI but eventually I became the maternal and child health [MCH] team leader.

In 2010 I was moved to Cambodia to take up the position of MCH team leader. The team covers maternal health, child health, EPI, nutrition and other things. And then after that I moved to my current position where I’m the MCH and nutrition team leader for the regional office.

So after 7 years you must have started to feel quite at home in the Philippines. Was it a difficult process moving on to Cambodia? What were the challenges you came across?

HS: In the first four years when bad things would happen I would just kind of brush it off, because you also have the good things happening. After about four years, every time something that wasn’t so nice happened I would wonder, ‘maybe it’s my time to move on’, and fortunately at each time I stayed on there were great things that also happened within the year.

But moving to Cambodia was a great experience… it was very nice going from very different systems, very different culture, very different situations, and yet when you’re working in a new country, if you’ve got good experience and you’re very practical, you find much more similarities than differences in what you have to do in working there.

Going to Cambodia, I really hit the ground running as a result of the great experiences I had in Philippines; it was great moving for that reason. At the beginning it was a hard on the family - my son was established in the Philippines, but when he got to Cambodia he became the darling of the teachers and the students alike! Everybody loved him, and he matured into a person who is able to do a lot of stuff.

We had a lot of teary nights before I finally decided that I was going to come back and it was not an easy decision for the family, but he got here and he established probably more quickly than I established in my current position. He’s no worse for wear and he actually matured in Cambodia and came back as a very mature, now, almost 16 year-old.

What lessons do you think the WPRO scheme has for other regions and headquarters?

HS: I can talk from my own experience, and my experience was a positive one. My personal opinion is that virtually every technical officer in the regional office and HQ should have varied experience so that they can understand that sometimes what gets promoted at higher levels is just not applicable when you’re sitting down in the country.

I would get documents or requests every week and a lot of it made no sense to my national counterparts. You gain a lot of important skills when you get the country experience and I think that’s missing for a lot of people. I hope it’s not too late for many of them, but I think it’s important that everyone gains that experience when they start to make regional strategies or global action plans.

By going to Cambodia, even though I’d worked in other countries, going there at that stage in my career was a very good thing, it expanded my horizons dramatically, and it really solidified what I had learned in Philippines and it applied in a country that is virtually the opposite in so many different ways.

But do you think mobility and rotation is for everyone?

HS: I think everybody should move along, I think that people need to have a variety of experiences, WHO especially thrives on this kind of thing. It can be the wide exposure when I got sent to Ghana to help them out on a polio campaign.

It was fantastic because I brought with me the Philippines experience and I got to see a different culture and yet it ended up being much of the same stuff – I recognized instantly that Ghana had the same issues that the Philippines had, even though it’s a very different situation. I think everybody needs to have a wide exposure to different areas.

So is mobility and rotation for everyone? I can’t say it’s for everyone but I think people should be open to wide experiences, and mobility and rotation is one way to try and keep people fresh in what they’re doing.

Thank you so much, just one more question! Do you see yourself rotating again, or moving countries, or are you open to whatever comes your way?

HS: It’s not likely I’m going to move countries in the next two years for sure and even another two years after that. But again, I’m not boxing myself in, I’m open to things.

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