HEAL Spotlight: Siddhi Aryal

  • Name: Siddhi Aryal
  • Originated from: Kathmandu, Nepal
  • Educational background: BSc in Social Sciences from Shimer College, MSc in International Health from University College London, and PhD in Global Health Systems Development from Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine
  • Current position: Regional Director (Asia Pacific), Vital Strategies
  • Personal website: https://www.linkedin.com/in/siddhi-aryal-aa540b53/
  • Twitter handle: @SiddhiAryal

Your story

I thought I was destined to go into business. I was 17 years old when I set up a successful advertising company, employed seven people and bought my first car when I was 19. But I wasn’t cut out for business. I applied to college while still running my company and was accepted on a full-ride scholarship into an undergraduate program in social sciences. After graduating, I worked at Salomon Smith Barney as an equity associate in Chicago for a few years but ultimately wasn’t happy and returned to Nepal. This speaks to the larger quest within me to be happy with my career. In this case, I was making decent income and had a good life in Chicago but was still drawn to Nepal. I constantly reflected on what it was that I wanted and how I should spend the rest of my life.

A young Siddhi in conversation with a Roopavahini TV official during his first international visit to Colombo, Sri Lanka as Nepal’s SAARC Quiz team member (1993)

Growing up in a middle-class family in Nepal, a developing nation, the challenges I faced weren’t unlike the ones that millions of young people face around the world. However, hopelessness began to envelope society, especially as the Maoists began terrorizing the country with their bloody war. As someone who wasn’t able to verbalize my own emotional issues while growing up, which led to substance abuse and depression, after I returned to Nepal from the US I decided to work with young people to avoid substance abuse, help them communicate, seek help, and learn life skills. I worked on life skills-based development with the government, USAID, FHI 360 and UNICEF. After working for five years or so, I felt the need to get a more advanced public health degree. I received a scholarship to study public health in Europe as part of the Erasmus Mundus scholarship program, where I went to universities in the United Kingdom, Scotland, Denmark, and Germany to obtain a master’s in public health. I also pursued a PhD at Tulane University in health systems management. While in my PhD program, I traveled to Thailand and did some consulting assignments with UNDP/UNAIDS and worked with USAID-funded programs across the Greater Mekong sub-region. My work in public health stemmed from introspection about how growing up as a young person in Nepali society affected me, and that made me want to look at public health in a more holistic, broader way about how I could make use of my life to improve other people’s lives.

Every day, even now, I still question what I’m doing with my life. One may not be 100% satisfied by how one’s living, but overall, to pursue your inner voice and lead yourself or allow yourself to be led to a path where your inclinations take you is extremely important, especially for young people. Life is full of possibilities, especially now. There are so many areas one could go into—don’t let yourself be constrained with the constructs of what a “perfect” life should look like.

Discussing drug resistance in South East Asia with technical team members and Cambodia country team (2017)

Inner Lantern glow-up 

  • Lessons learned over the last year or so: What I’ve learned in the last year is that no matter how fixated you want to be on how things should run—as a manager or an administrator—that there always is another option. It may not be to your liking initially, but once you see how things pan out in the end, things just work out.

    We always used to say there’s an opportunity in the global health world to leapfrog into the next iteration of digital workspaces and strategies, but there was always hesitation. With the COVID-19 pandemic shifting workstyles and forcing people to work from home, people were able to function as well if not better than before. My lesson learned is to be open-minded and appreciate the changes that you have no control over, because water will find its own flow, things will find a way to work out.
  • Motivations for and advice related to pursing a PhD: I had immense opportunities to work in public health in Nepal with some grounded personalities and with different donor agencies, government stakeholders, etc. I was involved in one particular study as a national expert looking at options for scaling up the HIV/AIDS response in the country. I was paired with an international expert who came all the way from South Africa, a very respectable doctor who worked in HIV for decades. The way I was paired with him made me realize that I was too young and there was so much I could offer by way of deepening my knowledge in working with global-level leaders, government counterparts, and youth organizations within Nepal but also to be able to offer a different narrative that’s from the ‘Global South’ in terms of public health leadership. If I hadn’t gone for a terminal degree in public health, my horizon would have been limited. Unfortunately, so far, global knowledge, skills, and expertise within public health aren’t really valued to the extent that they ought to be. That realization led me to go for an MPH and then a PhD.

    In reflection, after I finished my PhD, I had access to opportunities that came my way in terms of membership in different panels and organizations as well as doors that opened for me for different leadership roles. I would say that if you feel you need to escalate yourself to a level in your career where more doors will be open, then pursue a PhD. But if you want to build a more technical skillset, say in epidemiology, and want to work on emerging infectious disease prevention or capacity building at the periphery, then the PhD is not necessary for you at this point in time. It depends on the person.
  • On institutional efforts to be more inclusive: The world is interconnected. What happened in the United States in the past year in terms of recognition of the racial divide was brought to the fore because of some extreme incidents that we all had opportunities to witness. I’m happy to say that we at Vital Strategies and organizations like us are looking at how we can institutionalize the practice of valuing all the cultures, ethnicities, and kinds of people who work with us as staff, partners, etc. But it comes down to how we can change our outlook. If you go back to the establishment of global health architecture, one could always lay a finger saying this has colonial roots. It’s up to us to change that reality. So long as we are cognizant and working daily to bring about change, I think we’re moving toward an outcome that will be better for everybody. We’re also facing challenges of different types of inclusion—not only color but gender, ethnicities, languages, etc. and we need to center community ownership in our conversation.
  • What’s your current life motto: Spend time with family as much as possible and prioritize personal relationships, appreciate your co-workers and team members and be as inclusive as you can. The more you are willing to share parts of your responsibility, the more ownership others will show in coming up with strategies that people can then jointly work towards. When we talk about democratizing leadership, I don’t have to be the one who does all the thinking about the ways my office ought to run. I have to be willing to open up discussions about how our Asia operations and programs should be shaped like. If I can create spaces for formidable minds to share, then there’s more ownership and overall greater success.
  • On exercise: I run every day and have regularly done so since 2008. I always pack my running shoes and have run in Johannesburg, Atlanta, Chicago, New York, New Orleans, Phnom Penh, Pailin, Delhi, Kathmandu, Pokhara, Bandipur, Bangkok, Chiangmai, Nairobi, Singapore, Manila, Jakarta, Vientiane, Hanoi, Yangon, Arusha, Addis Ababa, London, Edinburgh, Copenhagen and other places I have traveled.
  • If you didn’t have to work what would you do: My wife would tell you I’d ride my bike, because I love motorcycles, and watch news and spend time on Twitter as much as I could. Ever since I was little, I’ve been a news junkie. Growing up I had a transistor radio and I used to the Voice of America, BBC World News and the radio channels from China, India etc. That stuck with me—news is very important to me.
Siddhi with his motorcycle at the Bodok pollution check facility in Singapore (2021)
  • What is one of your proudest accomplishments: The moment that I was able to design a health systems research model for scaling up HIV response in Nepal as a team member with Dr. Malcolm Steinberg. Up until then, I hadn’t really written or co-authored a report of that magnitude. This also allowed me to work with the National Association of People Living with HIV/AIDS in Nepal (NAP+N), different entities and networks for injecting drug users, government ministries, as well as organizations and individuals outside of the capital city. I was able to collate stakeholders’ inputs and created a report in which the government adopted and acted on.
  • What is your favorite global health organization: A book that had a profound impact on me was Mountains Beyond Mountains, on the life and times of Paul Farmer. That said, my favorite global health organization is Partners in Health (PIH)—the work PIH did in Haiti around access and the combination of what Paul Farmer and Jim Kim accomplished will always be something I will want to emulate. Lives of so many people are better because of Paul Farmer’s conviction to serve others.
  • What’s one thing everyone in the global public health field should know: A stitch in time saves nine. We should spend on public health when it’s not an emergency (like the COVID-19 pandemic). One has to think beyond oneself and think about the community as a whole. COVID-19 is the beginning, not the end—there will be more COVID-19-like pandemics in the near future. Let’s save ourselves when there’s still time and learn from these events.
  • Currently reading: My elder son is a voracious reader, and I’ve been reading some of his books as well, currently on artificial intelligence and how the world will be shaped by artificial technology. The book I’m reading right now is Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom on how AI will potentially impact our world and what we ought to do about it. I’m also reading books that focus on alternative narratives—such as Nithin Sridhar’s work on menstruation and how there is more to cultural practices than seen with a wide-angle hegemonic lens.
  • What’s the hardest lesson you’ve learned thus far: Being unsuccessful and being able to move on from that without letting it hit your confidence.
  • Favorite work memory thus far: Working in addressing Malaria among migrants in the Greater Mekong sub-region. This work took me to remote parts of Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar and across South East Asia, allowing me to work with an amazing set of people, including my team. I got to take part in technical meetings convened by the South East Asia and Western Pacific Regional Offices of the World Health Organization and work to make a difference in the lives of cross border migrants through tangible resources like bed nets and also advocating for issues they were facing. I fondly remember walking into the studios of BBC London to speak about my work on World Malaria Day. Definitely one of my most inspiring work memories—doing meaningful work, implementing programs and research on the ground that’s also connected to policy change and advocacy.
  • What job would you be terrible at: Being a regional director and a public health administrator, I have to know how to do many things and be ready to take quick decisions—from management to giving public interviews. I used to find it very difficult to give feedback to people, but the more I do it and think about the people we serve and the stakeholders we work with, I frame feedback in a way that’s best for the program or project. I learned as long as one deliberates and seeks other people’s views and truly believes in the objectiveness of the decision being made, even difficult decisions can be made. I would be terrible at doing something that didn’t allow for this consultative process in decision making.
  • What makes you happy: Seeing the results of our public health work benefiting the communities we serve brings happiness, whether it is things like enactment of policy to wear a helmet, a ban on smoking in public parks or mandatory policy to provide protective clothing to migrant workers engaged in jobs that make them vulnerable to malaria, for example. Personally, I also derive pleasure in being close to my loved ones. Another constant source of happiness, without a fail for me, is when I ride my bike.
  • If you could live anywhere, where would you live: I have deep connections with my native country, Nepal. So I would definitely choose Nepal, probably a hillside near Kathmandu, with consideration for my aging parents to make it accessible for them as well.
  • People you admire the most: Paul Farmer is one of them, as well as people who work on the frontlines of global health, particularly women. In the COVID-19 pandemic, the bulk of the work has been performed by women. This needs to be reflected in policy making forums where we have systems that work better for women and everybody. We need systems that are representative of conditions on-the-ground. This is true in public health as in all other aspects of life. I admire the resilience and grit that women in public health bring and wish the system would allow for them to be in more leadership positions around the world.
  • You dream of a world where: Everybody has access to the healthcare that they need and deserve, access to resources that they need to carry out fulfilling, satisfactory, and ultimately happy lives. There’s so much disparity and inconsistency in this world, with so few people having access, that we should work toward making health systems more accessible and conceptualize how health education and basic human needs can be a part of the state and government responsibilities.
Siddhi with Ambassador Veena Sikri in New Delhi, India (2019)
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