A 'new era' for WHO as first African head elected — but challenges await

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus waves at the Assembly Hall after he was elected as the next World Health Organization director-general. Photo by: L. Cipriani / WHO

For many, the election of the first African director-general of the World Health Organization has been cause for celebration, and praise for Ethiopia’s Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus flooded in after his win on Tuesday.

But Tedros takes the helm of the United Nations health agency at a critical time, when its legitimacy is at stake. Despite winning by a wide margin, the former minister of health’s campaign for the leadership was also marked by concerns over human rights.

The next WHO director-general is Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

The former minister of health of Ethiopia was elected as the new leader of the U.N. global health body by the World Health Assembly on Tuesday.

There were many congratulations from organizations and individuals alike on the evening following the election.

Michel Sidibé, executive director of UNAIDS, which works closely with WHO, called Tedros a “driving force for change.”

“He is a dynamic leader, an excellent convener, and shares our ambition to end AIDS as part of the Sustainable Development Goals,” Sidibé said in a statement.

The head of the Stop TB Partnership, Dr. Lucica Ditiu, hailed a “new era for WHO,” hoping to see “accelerated efforts in scaling up [work], significant decreases in TB epidemiology and a huge increase in numbers of  lives saved,” she told Devex.

Michael Bloomberg, whose Bloomberg Philanthropies works on a number of global health issues, also weighed in, calling Tedros “an exceptional leader” in public health. He looks forward to working with him, he said.

Some of Tedros’ earlier supporters — such as Thomas Frieden, former director of the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who had lent strong backing to his campaign — celebrated the Ethiopian candidate’s win, and called on governments and organizations around the world to rally behind and support WHO.

Via Twitter

Others, including his rival David Nabarro — the United Kingdom candidate who made it to the final round of voting alongside Tedros — called for the global health community to unite behind Tedros and support his leadership of WHO going forward.

“I am not the one who can say I voted for you, but I can say that we will support you in protecting and improving the health of all people everywhere across our world,” Sally Davies, the U..K.’s chief medical officer, said in a session at the World Health Assembly on Tuesday. “We welcome your promises on transparency, delivery and reform.”

Via Twitter

One of the big tasks facing Tedros is the challenge of rebuilding WHO’s legitimacy and reputation, which has been damaged in recent years, in part due to its weak response to the Ebola epidemic. He will need not only to rebuild faith in the organization, but also to show that it can evolve with the times.

Some think that may be a difficult task, in part due to the the issues that hounded Tedros’ candidacy, including his association with the government of Ethiopia — which stands accused of human rights abuses — and allegations about cover-ups of disease outbreaks during his time in government.

“​WHO's success is vital to health around the world, and Dr. Tedros will have to restore its reputation as a competent, professional and accountable organization,” said Lawrence Gostin, a professor at Georgetown University who became embroiled in controversy with Tedros a few days before the election, alleging his complicity in covering up a cholera outbreak in Ethiopia.

“I call on the new director-general to embrace a progressive, rights-based leadership of WHO,” he added.

Gostin said that, given Ethiopia’s human rights record, Tedros must speak out early to condemn human rights abuses, and work to include civil society in his conversations.

Loyce Pace, president and executive director at the Global Health Council, agreed that it is “a fair concern,” and told Devex that WHO needs to work to rebrand itself “not in the way of covering anything up, but [in a way that] actually speaks honestly to its shortcomings and how the agency plans to address those.”

Q&A: WHO candidate Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

Director-general candidate Tedros of Ethiopia says he would begin reforming the World Health Organization by listening to concerns and assessing priorities. Member states should up their funding commitment if they want a real decision-making power in the organization's future, he tells Devex.

All three finalists in the race for the leadership, including Tedros, had committed to building transparency and accountability at the organization — an issue that civil society partners and observers will be keeping an eye on as the new leader of WHO takes the helm in July.

Tedros will have to show “determined leadership,” Oxfam said in a statement, but he will also need government support “to ensure the WHO is well-funded and independent of any commercial influence, so that it is able to fulfil its mandate to build a healthier and fairer future for people everywhere.”

Devex is reporting live from the World Health Assembly in Geneva. Follow @devex and our reporters @AdvaSal and @JennyLeiRavelo ‏and subscribe to the Development Newswire for our coverage of #WHA70.

About the authors

  • 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.
  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is a Senior Reporter at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.