In 1983, as an 18-year-old, Roberto Garcia seemed destined to become a professional basketball player in France.
But then his father invited him to spend a year in the African country of Benin, where he had just joined the UN International Labor Office after a lifetime in the private sector.
Originally from Spain, the Garcia family had gone to France in 1939 as political refugees.
“We only knew France and Spain, and nothing about the developing world,” Garcia said.
But during that year in West Africa, he said, “I realized that I could never go back” to Europe.
And 15 years later, after a journey that included one year in London to master English, a university degree in tourism marketing and economics, a post-graduate degree at the Sorbonne in Paris in health and education development economics, followed by a series of short-term missions for the European Commission, the International Red Cross and French Cooperation in Afghanistan and several African countries, Garcia became European co-director of the EC Malaria Project in Cambodia.
Next week he will join the Asia department of the Global Fund in Geneva as country manager for HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis programs supported by the fund.
By 1999 in Cambodia, the five-year EC program was halfway finished and behind schedule, Garcia said. It required a strategy to make it part of the national program, he said. So Garcia’s first step was to move the project office to walking distance of the National Malaria Center.
Then, working closely with the center, the project set up a structure to include all parties involved in malaria control—from provincial health authorities to international organizations and NGOs—in the development of this strategy and its implementation once the Ministry of Health had approved it in 2001.
This made it easy for the malaria center to meet the Global Fund’s requirements this year, and to present an overall project from six government ministries and five NGOs, said Garcia, who has assisted the Country Coordinating Committee to set up the structure to manage Global Fund grants.
Garcia’s important contribution has helped create a “collective responsibility” approach to control malaria, said Mam Bun Heng, secretary of state for the Ministry of Health. Malaria cases have dropped nearly 50 percent between 1997 and 2002.
The malaria center will continue to need a scientific adviser to support ongoing studies to monitor the effectiveness of medicine and programs in Cambodia, Garcia said.