SEATTLE — On May 23, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was elected as the new World Health Organization (WHO) director-general by the organization’s member states. He will succeed Margaret Chan in the position on July 1 and will be faced with the challenge of reforming the organization that has been underfunded and severely criticized in recent years.
The slow and ineffective response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014 elicited sharp criticism of the United Nations agency. It took months for the WHO to declare a public health emergency — “precious months,” according to Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. A more timely global reaction could have contained the epidemic and limited the death toll of 11,000. The WHO was weakened in the years prior due to budget cuts that resulted in the dissolution of its epidemic and pandemic response department, and limited its capacity to respond to the crisis.
Just before the election, the Associated Press published a report about the WHO’s large travel budget, sparking a new wave of criticism. The report remarked that the WHO’s annual travel spending of around $200 million exceeded its 2016 expenditures on AIDS and hepatitis ($71 million) as well as on malaria ($61 million). These revelations might reduce the willingness of member states and donors to contribute financially even further. The new WHO director-general himself stated that “the lack of flexibility and predictability of [the WHO’s]funding” is one of the organization’s biggest challenges in the upcoming years.
During his campaign, the new WHO director-general promised to address the issue of the WHO’s funding. Ghebreyesus aims to extend the access to healthcare around the world, to focus on women’s and children’s health and to strengthen national and regional authorities’ ability to handle emergencies and respond to environmental change. Furthermore, he wants to increase the WHO’s transparency, accountability and effectiveness by striking “a balance between bold reform and organizational stability.”
Ghebreyesus was praised as the suitable candidate to reform the WHO partly because of the successes he achieved as health minister in Ethiopia between 2005 and 2012. During this time, he was able to drastically reduce deaths from malaria, HIV, tuberculosis and neonatal problems. He also strengthened education for health workers in the country. In the following years, he then served as foreign minister in Ethiopia. Ghebreyesus candidacy for new WHO director-general was endorsed by the 55-member African Union.
Ghebreyesus was also confronted by critics during his campaign. An informal adviser to the British candidate David Nabarro accused Ghebreyesus and the Ethiopian government of covering up cholera outbreaks during his time as health minister. Similar cover-ups have happened before due to the fear that the outbreaks might hurt tourism or trade, and the public image of a country. Ghebreyesus denied the claims and called it a “smear campaign.”
But despite the criticism, Ghebreyesus defeated his opponents Nabarro and Sania Nishtar in three voting rounds on May 23. His first steps as new WHO director-general will be closely watched globally and will determine the role of the organization in upcoming years. Proponents hope that with its new leader, the WHO will be able to reform its operations and rehabilitate its reputation.
– Lena Riebl