Gini Arnold finds it easy to establish a causal link between her school days at Bedales and her professional life. “When I did a gap year in Nepal, I went with a bunch of Old Bedalians, and it was the work that we did out there that finally convinced me that I wanted to do NGO work,” she remembers. “Beyond that, though, Bedales taught me so many things.” Previously, Gini had attended what she now describes as a “pushy day school”; at Bedales she had the ideal environment in which to develop her own thinking. “The school was invaluable in ensuring that I was unafraid of authority or of questioning it,” she emphasises.
After finishing at Cambridge University, Gini rejected possible careers in the diplomatic service and banking in order to fulfil her true ambition – working at theUN. In this she was assisted by the siren voices of those who told her that it would be an impossible dream. “Yes, I was put off by some people who said that there was a nationality quota system in force at the UN and because I was English, my chances were limited,” she says. “I think that another thing about Bedales was that I learned to become even more determined when I’m told that I can’t do something. I joined in 2000 and when I became a UN diplomat in 2004 and got my passport, I have to admit to being quite proud of what I’d achieved.”
Life at the UN has been notably varied for Gini and has included serving as part of the delegation to visit Banda Aceh and Thailand straight after the catastrophic tsunami of late 2004. However, she has been most associated with global healthcare issues and is currently serving as a project manager for the World Health Organisation. One of her greatest preoccupations has been the fight against tuberculosis, a disease that is often associated with the Victorian era, but which remains a constant issue in the developing world. “When a strain of TB that was resistant to drugs turned up in New York in the late 1990s, the eyes of the world were really opened to the scale of the TB problem,” Gini explains.
As Operations Manager at the Stop TB Partnership, Gini worked with a predominantly young team to battle some of the principle obstacles to successful treatment of the disease. “We had to deal with the absence of drugs, or worse, the prescription of only half the necessary dose, which helps no-one, as it leads to drug resistance,” Gini outlines. “There is also the strong link between TB and the HIV virus, which needed to be more widely publicised. There are still cases of TB that are resistant to the latest drugs, but I know that while I was a part of the team, eight million people received drug boxes with a full 6-month course of treatment to fight the disease. TB is curable, and I have to be optimistic that total eradication is possible.”
Another of the major campaigns with which Gini has been strongly involved is tobacco control. “The argument in favour of tobacco is always that of personal choice, but in reality it is the campaigns and tactics of tobacco companies that influence smoking behaviour. Tobacco companies have so much money and power, that personal choice often doesn’t come into smoking,” Gini observes. “Tobacco is the single most preventable cause of death in the world today. It kills more than 6 million people per year. Unless we take urgent action now, tobacco could kill one billion people this century. I’ve spent a lot of time in countries such as Zimbabwe trying to help farmers shift to other food or cash crops which are more beneficial. However in recent years, the message is getting home there, including at government level. There are now a couple of framework treaties around the world aimed at making smoking more difficult. Political will is also increasing – more money is being made available, much of it from such private sources as Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to help countries. Awareness is growing, too, that tobacco use imposes a huge burden on society. It was a huge step forward when the UN adopted a political declaration last September on the prevention of non-communicable diseases. That was only the second declaration of the sort that had ever been issued – the first was on HIV, so it’s clear that member states intend to get together to fight this.”
A veteran of political meetings with heads of state in more than 50 countries, Gini refuses to allow red tape to smother good intentions. “My interest, which is quite a Bedalian ideal, I think, is to find creative solutions to problems,” says Gini. “With tobacco, we’ve been looking at mobile devices to help people quit smoking, for example. In my time at the UN and the WHO, I’ve come to realise that political processes can work and that politicians can be asked awkward questions.”
Long-term solutions to burning global healthcare issues rarely come quickly, but Gini insists that frustration is not a part of her working life. “It’s a highly motivating job, which is so much more than just shifting bits of paper about,” she declares. “You can empirically measure the direct impact of what you do on the lives of others – just look at TB, for instance. I’ve been incredibly lucky to enjoy a fascinating and fulfilling career and long may it continue.”
Does the English girl ever have a yearning to return home, having lived and worked abroad for so long? “I’m a policy fellow at Cambridge, so I’ve still got professional links in the UK,” Gini replies. “When I began, most of the global health organisations were based in Geneva, but there are many more that have sprung up in London since then. If you ask me where I see myself working eventually, I have a feeling that I might end up turning a full circle and working somewhere like Nepal, just as I did with the other Bedalians all those years ago.”
Gini Arnold was interviewed by James Fairweather in Summer 2012.