A view of the plenary session of the 67th World Health Assembly in 2014. This year’s meeting is set to discuss important health topics, from maternal and child health to medicine access worldwide, as well as changes taking place inside the World Health Organization. Photo by: Pan American Health Organization / CC BY-ND

Zika and its public health threat at the upcoming 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, dominated World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan’s press briefing on Tuesday.

But the Zika virus is only one part of the agenda at the upcoming 69th World Health Assembly, which Chan described as “record-breaking” for the number of agenda items and resolutions member states will need to discuss and agree on at the May 23-28 event, from the operational plan to implement the Global Strategy on Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ health, draft global strategy on health workforce, to discussions on access to essential medicines worldwide.

There is however another theme emerging from the annual event: internal reforms and initiatives taking place at WHO that will also be on the assembly’s agenda:

WHO reform, including its new role in health emergencies

The director-general will be providing a progress report on the implementation of WHO’s reform agenda as well as an overview of the design, implementation plan and requirements needed to move forward the WHO’s Health Emergencies program. The program is part of the wide-ranging reforms initiated by the executive board after reviews by different independent committees found weaknesses in the agency’s current processes, as revealed during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

The program will be headed by an executive director, who will be reporting directly to the director-general. The recruitment process for the position has already been established, and WHO anticipates this to be completed in time for the 69th World Health Assembly.

In the meantime, the director-general will be asking member states for a budget increase in its core financing to ensure rollout of the planned changes under the new program. The current WHO program biennium budget for the transition is at $334 million, and will require an additional $160 million.

IHR implementation

The committee charged to review the WHO’s International Health Regulations will be presenting a set of 12 recommendations on how to strengthen the IHR’s implementation in all WHO member states. Among the recommendations is the setting up of a WHO contingency fund for emergencies, the creation of a standing advisory committee that would regularly review and advise the director-general on risk assessments and communication, and the establishment of a new alert level called “International Public Health Alert,” which is more intermediate and could act as an alternative to the announcement of a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.”

WHO’s geographical mobility policy and other human resource issues


In January, Chan set in motion the WHO’s geographical mobility policy, whose aim is to expose WHO professional and higher position staff to the work of the organization across the Secretariat, and its regional and country offices. The human resource annual report reveals data on staff movement across offices as well as staff gender and geographical balance within the organization.

The report also provides an overview of the foreseeable impact of the U.N. General Assembly resolution that introduces changes to U.N. staff compensation and raises the mandatory age of retirement for U.N. staff to 65 years old.

Geneva building renovation strategy

The director-general provided an update on the WHO’s building renovation plans at its headquarters in Geneva. The report provides an overview of the changes that will take place at the headquarters, environmental impact and cost-savings of the proposed new buildings, and the estimated costs for both the construction of a new building (140 million Swiss francs, or about $141 million) and the renovation of WHO’s main building (110 Swiss francs).

The report also gives a breakdown of where WHO plans to source the funding for the renovations. A draft resolution will be placed before member states to approve the strategy and authorize the director-general to proceed with the renovations, including the use of a Real Estate Fund.

The election process for the next WHO director-general

Early May, the WHO officially opened the nomination process for the next director-general. Now member states will have to consider whether to allow shortlisted candidates for the position to address member states at the 69th World Health Assembly before the voting process. In the draft resolution, candidates will be given a maximum of 15 minutes to address the Assembly, but member states will no longer be allowed to ask questions thereafter.

The process will take one full year to complete. But next week, at the 69th World Health Assembly, member states will have a dry run of the new system of electronic voting for the director-general position.

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.