Global Business School for Health


Interview - Prof Sheikh on bridging the policy-academia divide and navigating global health politics

5 November 2023

Professor Kabir Sheikh discusses bridging the policy-academia divide and navigating global health politics

Headshot of Kabir Sheikh

This interview has been adapted from an interview piece Professor Kabir Sheikh did with Times Higher Education*

Kabir Sheikh is Professor of Global Gealth Systems and Policy at UCL’s Global BusinessSchool for Health. His career has taken him from Asia and the Pacific, from teaching and research posts in Bangladesh, India and Australia, to giving policy advice in Geneva for the World Health Organization and, most recently, to the UK.

When and where were you born? How has this shaped you?

I was born in Delhi and raised in Vadodara, a city in Gujarat in western India. I grew up prior to the era of economic liberalisation, but at that time there was a culture of critical thought, enabled by the many educational and cultural institutions that were established in the decades after independence. India contains multitudes, and we had space to think and form opinions about its complexity and its relationship with the rest of the world.

What got you interested in studying health?

I trained as a doctor in Delhi, and my early experience as an intern in a large Indian government hospital awakened an interest in health systems. I was struck by how often strained health systems actually managed to function. A lot of that comes down to the actions and decisions of carers and health providers, and how well – or not – they are supported. I have written that the performance of health systems is a reflection of society’s collective will for caring. I specialised in public health medicine and health policy, spending the first 10 years of my career with local organisations and public health programmes, and then with a national foundation, the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI). The story of PHFI needs to be told. It popularised public health in India and made it a viable profession.

How did you get involved with the World Health Organization?

Through the 2000s and 2010s, I found myself one of an emerging global community of scholars and practitioners working on health systems issues. Together, we developed the methods and frameworks that built the field of health policy and systems research, founded a global membership society – Health Systems Global, which I chaired from 2016 to 2018 – and advocated for more research, especially social science research, into strengthening health systems. With successive epidemics through the 2010s – H5N1, Zika, Ebola – came a heightened global awareness of the need for more strong, evidence-informed health systems. In 2017, I was asked to join the World Health Organization (WHO) to lead scientific research into health systems aspart of the mandate of its then-new science division.

What lessons did you take with you in recently going from such a large agency to UCL?

More than five years working for WHO gave me first-hand insight into the politics of global health. The big takeaway is that universities could be doing more to broker dialogue and collaborate with policymakers and practitioners. There is too big a gap between the world of academic publishing and the policy/practice coalface in a field such as mine. The prevailing paradigm is to try to push evidence into policy, which often doesn’t work. Deliberation and partnership are needed to spur true learning and change. Importantly, that will mean diversifying the ways in which academic performance is assessed, and it’s good to see that the Agreement on Reforming Research Assessment – to which UK Research and Innovation is a signatory – addresses this.

Academics often speak about the need for Western countries to work more with the developing world. Having worked in Bangladesh and India, do you feel that universities aredoing more than ‘talking the talk’?

Covid-19 was a perfect metaphor – we can’t ignore challenges in “other countries” since tomorrow they will be our challenges. We are interconnected. Universities do need to do more to forge responsible and ethical partnerships in the different settings in which they work. I also think the boundaries and categories – Western/Eastern, developing/developed – are not so simple anymore. The challenges in different countries are often similar or overlapping. I will represent UCL, but I am Indian, and I have worked across Asia and Africa. Many of us straddle such intersections – and this brings important opportunities. Diverse worldviews, backgrounds and abilities are needed for universities to be effective in advancing learning and having an impact in different contexts and settings.

What has been the most gratifying moment of your career so far?

Establishing the Keystone Initiative, India’s first postgraduate fellowship for health policy and systems research. It was a partnership across 13 academic institutions, which would normally be complex, but the relationships were incredibly supportive and there was this sense of a collective mission.

Had you not gone down this career path, what do you think you’d be doing today?

I would probably have become a writer or a film critic.

What do you do for fun?

I love to swim, watch the films of Anurag Kashyap and coach junior cricket.

What keeps you awake at night?

Ideas about the research I want to do at UCL. Urbanisation, privatisation and the information revolution are the big trends transforming health systems across Asia and Africa. We need to make better sense of how they are changing and how to manage those changes.