WHO Begins Search for New Chief Executive
In April, a major international healthcare organization began the hunt for its next top leader. In 2017, Dr. Margaret Chen, the first Chinese national to serve at the helm of the World Health Organization, will be relinquishing her post after 10 years and two terms. WHO is the central coordinating body for international health within the United Nations’ system, which includes over 7,000 employees in 150 offices globally.
With the WHO election set to coincide with the U.S. Administration turnover, the U.S. is likely to play a minimal role in the selection of the system’s next top healthcare chief.
As Chen steps down, the transition is promising to be one of turmoil. There is strong pressure for reform within the organization, with critics citing old and “stodgy” practices. One of the more glaring recent failures was the
body’s slow reaction to West Africa’s Ebola outbreak; the organization failed to escalate the problem fast enough, as well as to take pressure off local healthcare systems. “If health risks are not contained in their countries of origin they can go anywhere,” said Gary Cohen, acting CEO of GBCHealth, a group that brings businesses together with government and international organizations to promote global health initiatives.
Cohen further notes that when diseases proliferate, the impact goes well past the health system. “It also has a potentially massive impact on economic activity, as demonstrated by the SARS epidemic in Asia,” he said. However, the WHO has not been capable of doing what is needed because it doesn’t have the funding – since the 1990’s, earmarked donations and member state dues, the WHO’s main source of funding, have remained stagnant. Laurie Garrett, a global health expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, notes that the WHO needs to be stronger internally and funded properly in order to build the strong associations it needs, like those with the pharmaceutical industry.
Within an environment calling for reform and struggling with money issues, the WHO’s nomination process has begun to identify candidates to fill the director-general position. Nations have until Sept. 22 to submit their proposals. The WHO’s executive board will streamline the process, choosing up to three candidates to participate in the election at the World Health Assembly in May 2017. As of this writing, three candidates have announced their intentions to contend for the office: Philippe Douste-Blazy, a former French minister of health; Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Ethiopia’s minister of foreign affairs; and Sania Nishtar, Pakistan’s former top health official.
All members of the World Health Assembly will participate in a secret ballot vote for the director-general, the first time for such an inclusive process. Given the wider range of people voting, there is speculation that this could be the first time in history that the WHO is led by a non-MD; for instance, Ghebreyesus has degrees in advanced infectious disease and public health, but not medicine. Additional non-MD candidates are expected to enter the race in the coming months before the deadline.
Given that this election takes place as the United States transitions administrations, the U.S. likely won’t have a health team in place at the U.N. until after the WHO executive board votes on the final three candidates. Therefore, the election is likely to take place without American input.