Exclusive: Questions arise over Tedros' new deputy director-general

 Dr. Zsuzsanna Jakab, new deputy director-general at the World Health Organization. Photo by: © European Union / Nuno Rodrigues / CC BY-NC-SA

MANILA — An internal complaint at the World Health Organization’s ethics office has questioned the appointment of Dr. Zsuzsanna Jakab as WHO’s new deputy director-general as part of the agency’s organizational restructuring in March.

The complaint, filed after the appointment and seen by Devex, came from a “group of concerned staff members at WHO” who “feel confused and outraged” by Jakab’s elevation. The complaint alleges that Jakab, while serving as regional director of WHO’s European office from 2010 to early 2019, was a recipient of “many allegations of harassment.” In addition, the complaint also alleges that by appointing 67-year-old Jakab to the position, WHO has violated the retirement age limit of 65.  

While WHO’s ethics office has since closed the case, the emerging details raise questions on the legitimacy of Jakab’s appointment and the credibility of WHO’s oversight processes.

“Why doesn’t WHO hold its own leaders accountable? Why don't internal oversight processes work?”

— WHO internal complaint

Case at ILO

One of the allegations against Jakab was made by a senior WHO official — Natalia Menabde, who was until recently serving as the executive director at the United Nations WHO office. Menabde had lodged internal appeals in 2010 regarding Jakab’s modification of her terms of reference and removal of her managerial responsibilities after Jakab took charge as regional director of WHO’s Europe office in February 2010. The case reached the International Labor Organization’s administrative tribunal, which found that Jakab acted in “flagrant disregard of the complainant’s rights.”

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The ILO administrative tribunal found that the actions taken against the complainant showed a breach of WHO’s duty of care. It furthered that the U.N. agency “did not act in good faith in making its reassignment offers, and did not treat [Menabde] with dignity and respect.”

It asked that WHO pay the complainant 65,000 Swiss francs ($63,700) for moral damages and 5,000 Swiss francs for costs. This was in addition to the 12,500 Swiss francs already paid by WHO for the procedural violations made by Jakab as regional director when she decided over the case for which she had a clear conflict of interest, instead of referring it to the board of appeal at WHO headquarters as requested by the complainant.

The ILO decision didn’t use the term “harassment” but stated that the earlier amount already awarded by WHO for moral damages was “inadequate in light of the repeated and egregious disregard of the complainant’s rights and her dignity.” It described the removal of her managerial responsibilities “as demeaning and humiliating.”

Abuse of power

Given what they perceived as an “abuse of power,” the concerned WHO staff in their internal complaint asked why Jakab was still appointed to a senior position within the organization.

“Why doesn’t WHO hold its own leaders accountable? Why don't internal oversight processes work? We feel that this appointment represents a violation of UN values and should not have been allowed. Given ongoing investigations at WHO regarding alleged abuse of authority by senior managers, the Director-General should have been extra careful in screening his candidates for the DDG position,” the complaint stated.

They argued the appointment “needs to be corrected ASAP and Jakab's appointment should be withdrawn before further damage is done.”

One of the staff members who shared the concerns requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation, citing the prevailing culture within the United Nations of attacking whistleblowers.

However, in early April, WHO’s ethics office closed the complaint.

“The Director-General has made use of his prerogative as senior most official in WHO to make a senior management appointment. The issues you are raising date back to 2010 and did not impugn Dr Jakab, as she was not party to the proceedings before the Tribunal. WHO has no statement to make on the Tribunal’s decision. We have considered your views and have now closed the matter,” as stated in the response by the ethics team at WHO and also seen by Devex.

“WHO has no statement to make on the Tribunal’s decision.”

— WHO ethics team response

It also stated that the director-general did not violate WHO rules on age of service by appointing Jakab, who is currently 67 years old. Effective this year, the current retirement age at WHO, in line with new U.N. rules, is 65 years old.

The issue comes a few weeks before the 72nd World Health Assembly, where WHO’s restructuring will likely be a major topic of discussion.

The director-general’s role

When asked whether Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, was aware of the case involving Jakab prior to appointing her as deputy director-general and how WHO plans to address staff concerns, WHO spokesperson Tarik Jašarević said:

“All concerns raised with WHO’s Compliance, Risk Management and Ethics Office are reviewed in accordance with WHO’s established policies and internal mechanisms. Feedback is provided to the individuals who raised concerns,” Jašarević said.

He added that WHO senior management appointments are “within the prerogative of its Director-General and are made in keeping with the applicable regulatory framework.”

Devex reached out to Jakab’s office through the WHO communications department, but has yet to receive a response as of this writing.

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In March, Devex spoke to Menabde about her thoughts on the restructuring, and Jakab’s appointment as deputy director-general. Menabde at that time was serving her last day in office as executive director at the WHO office at the United Nations in New York to engage in an electoral campaign for the senior-most position at WHO’s regional office in Europe.

“My government has put my name forward as a candidate for election for the regional director of European Office of the World Health Organization, and these elections will take place in September,” she told Devex, adding she has personally informed Tedros about the decision.

“The application was filed before any announcements have been made. So it was known that I am stepping out of my current job to engage into election campaign,” she said.

This is Menabde’s second attempt for the regional director position at WHO’s European office. If she wins, she will have an opportunity to work with Jakab. Under Tedros’ transformation agenda, the goal is for WHO offices to work more closely together.

Asked how she feels about this, Menabde said she’s currently focused on her candidacy.

“I will refrain in expressing my opinions about the appointment of Dr. Jakab for this position. However, I would like to emphasize that it's not about my, or anybody else's, personal feelings. I think we are all professionals and we should do and we'll do our best to make the organization work. And I don't think there should be space for personal preferences with whom you want to work or you don't want to work,” she said.

“We will work with everybody as much as needed for the success of the organization. That case is closed, and I'm moving forward into the new reality and we'll try to make it work in the best possible way,” she said, adding “I'm running to a win in the selection and that's where my mindset is.”

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.