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Battle Heats Up to Become Next Director-General of WHO

  • Lisa Schlein

Ethiopian Minister of Foreign Affairs and academic Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, seen in this May 2016 photo, is the first African candidate to head the World Health Organization, WHO.

Three contenders for the World Health Organization’s top job have entered the final lap in a year-long campaign. The selection to succeed current Director General Margaret Chan, who has headed the WHO for 10 years, will be made in May by the 194-member World Health Assembly.

In a series of marathon back-to-back press conferences, the three candidates presented their qualifications and their ideas for making the World Health Organization a better and more effective institution.

All the final contenders have refrained from criticizing Chan for her management of the organization. All spoke about the shortcomings they saw, however, and the reforms that they envision to make WHO a more accountable and transparent organization.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who served as Minister of Health for Ethiopia between 2005 and 2012, and continued as Minister of Foreign Affairs through 2016, is the first African candidate for head of the WHO. He unabashedly told journalists he was the best candidate for the job because he had national and international experience.

“At the national level, I helped or led the design of the reform of the health system of Ethiopia. Not only that, I implemented the reform and, also got results."

He said at the international level he has chaired "the Global Fund, Roll Back Malaria Board, UNAIDS board, and also the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health."

Tedros cited priorities he plans to implement if elected WHO director general, including achieving universal health coverage and strengthening the agency’s emergency response.

“We have seen the vulnerability, Ebola and Zika,and we have to take this as a priority because there will be another…pandemic and we need to prepare right away with a sense of urgency,” he said.

The WHO Executive Board, which selected the three finalists from a group of five, gave Tedros 30 votes, compared to 28 for the Pakistani contender, Sania Nishtar, and 18 votes for David Nabarro from Britain.

David Nabarro

Nabarro has worked for WHO for five-and-a-half years, and he currently is serving as Special Adviser to the U.N. Secretary-General on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Climate Change.

David Nabarro, seen in this file photo, is currently serving as Special Adviser to the U.N. Secretary-General on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Climate Change.
David Nabarro, seen in this file photo, is currently serving as Special Adviser to the U.N. Secretary-General on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Climate Change.


He says he is the best person for the job.

"My work as an insider in the United Nations is actually quite unique in that I have been given difficult issues that, for various reasons, we were not able to deal with through normal process."

Nabarro said he began at the agency working on malaria and later on avian and human influenza. He said he has managed to make an impact on these and every single other issue he has had to tackle over the years, while also raising the money needed to deal with them.

“Look at my record ... You will find that I have had an impact inside the system that shows that it is possible to make the system work by being horizontal, outcome focused and using the kinds of techniques of catalytic action, as well as total transparency to get results,” he said.

The WHO budget is $4.5 billion for 2016 and 2017. Concerns have been raised, though, that the new Trump administration might cut the U.S. contribution.

Nabarro told VOA he has spoken to members of the incoming administration, and he said he believes they are open to dialogue. He notes they want to be sure contributions are being used well and could be accounted for in a transparent manner.

“After all, health security and dealing with health threats matters whatever country you are in," he said, “And, indeed the United States has been an amazing supporter of work on emergencies and outbreaks, as well as on different health systems within the WHO over the years.”

Sania Nishtar

Pakistani cardiologist, author and activist, Sania Nishtar, has held important positions in and outside government. She says she believes she can make the World Health Organization an even more relevant body.

Pakistani cardiologist, author and activist, Sania Nishtar - seen in this 2013 photo - says she believes she can make the World Health Organization an even more relevant body.
Pakistani cardiologist, author and activist, Sania Nishtar - seen in this 2013 photo - says she believes she can make the World Health Organization an even more relevant body.


”There are unprecedented opportunities to advance human health. And, if there was not a WHO, we really would have had to create one. But we have to be very mindful of the fact that the organization is currently at a crossroad.

"It is recovering from a reputational damage that it has suffered and it is struggling to reassert its leadership role in a very uncertain and political environment,” she said.

Reform of the World Health Organization has been a big issue since the unprecedented Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014. The organization is still reeling from its monumental failure to react quickly to this epidemic, which killed more than 11,000 people before it was brought under control in 2016.

Nishtar said her biggest strength, one which would serve the World Health Organization well, was that she “knows what she does not know.”

She said she was fully committed to making sure that she had the right answer if she did not know something. “I am just focused on getting the job done,” she said.

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