The Global Health Community Looks for its Next Leader

03/16/2017 10:43 am ET

The World Health Organization (WHO) is the global guardian of public health, and soon it will elect a new leader.

Following the success of the more open, transparent process that led to the election of António Guterres as UN Secretary-General, WHO is in the midst of its own process to elect its Director-General in a process that, likewise, is more open and transparent than ever before. Much of the credit goes to outgoing Director-General Margaret Chan, whose second term ends on June 30. Her commitment to a fair election process, in which all 194 Member States vote for their preferred candidate rather than merely rubber-stamping the recommendation of the 34-member Executive Board, was welcomed by governments and is one of many innovations marking her tenure.

Six governments nominated candidates by the September 2016 deadline, and those candidates all participated in a November forum for Member States at which they presented their vision for WHO and answered questions on their candidacy. WHO webcast that forum in all official languages to a global audience.

In January, the Executive Board drew up a short-list of five candidates based on qualifications. The board then interviewed the five behind closed doors and in a rather quick vote selected three nominees – Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of Ethiopia, David Nabarro of the United Kingdom, and Sania Nishtar of Pakistan – to be considered by all Member States on May 23 at the World Health Assembly in Geneva. The voting was done by secret ballot, which seems to have insulated the process from undue political pressures that sometimes exist between countries. Most observers believe that the three strongest candidates emerged from those deliberations.

Since November of last year, a few candidates’ debates sponsored by civil society organizations have added to the openness of the election process. The most recent such discussion, focused on political leadership for global health, took place on March 6. It was held at the Graduate Institute in Geneva and was cosponsored by the UN Foundation, Chatham House, and the Rockefeller Foundation.

GHC / S. Deshapriya

Two moderators asked questions distilled from hundreds that were submitted in advance from around the world, and the three candidates were credible, articulate, and intelligent in their responses. There were clear differences in style and approach among the three, and perceptions varied as to which candidate performed the best, but on the whole one can say that no candidate truly “won” the debate. In the end, the audience (over 500 people) got a very good sense of the skills, abilities, personalities, and policy priorities of the candidates. All three nominees are highly qualified:

  • Dr. Tedros, as he is known, was Ethiopia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs until November 2016 and, earlier, the Minister of Health. He has served as Chair of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; Chair of the Programme Coordinating Board for UNAIDS; Chair of the Roll Back Malaria Partnership; and Co-Chair of the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health.
  • Dr. David Nabarro is Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Climate Change. He has been Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Food Security and Nutrition; Special Envoy of the Secretary-General on Ebola; and UN System Senior Coordinator for Avian and Human Influenza. Earlier, he headed WHO’s Health Emergencies group and was Executive Director in the Director-General’s Office.
  • Dr. Sania Nishtar is Founder and President of Heartfile, a non-profit think tank focused on improving health systems in Pakistan. She has been a Federal Minister in Pakistan with a portfolio that included health; Chair of the UN Secretary-General’s Independent Accountability Panel for the Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health; and Co-Chair of the WHO Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity.

In May, the World Health Assembly will reach a decision by secret ballot requiring, in rather complicated rules of procedure, that the Director-General be elected “by a clear and strong majority of Members present and voting.” Here again, the presentations by the three candidates before the voting will be webcast in order to shine light on the process.

And then the global health community will have its next leader.

The new leader will inherit an organization implementing major reforms – still to be fully funded by donors – that will greatly improve WHO’s ability to respond to international health emergencies and to enhance global health security. One of the new Director-General’s prime tasks will be to generate the financial support needed for the full panoply of WHO’s activities, which range from eradicating infectious diseases such as polio to setting norms and standards to combatting non-communicable diseases to achieving the health-related Sustainable Development Goals and targets.

This will be a daunting task, but critical in enabling the World Health Organization to achieve its goal of building a better, healthier future for people all over the world.

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