In final speech, Chan argues against irrelevance

Dr. Margaret Chan, outgoing director-general at the World Health Organization. Photo by: L. Cipriani / WHO

In her last opening speech before the World Health Assembly on Monday, Director-General Margaret Chan paid homage to her decade in office, but also fought to dispel notions of WHO’s irrelevance.

“The facts tell a different story,” she said. “We falter sometimes, but we never give up.”

The outgoing director-general spoke about how vaccine introduction in-country and global scale up relies on WHO’s guidance or “seal of approval.” She talked about the achievements made to date on the fight against neglected tropical diseases, which last month received overwhelming support from donors such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The WHO’s roadmap to eliminate 17 NTDs by 2020 is known to have inspired the movement that led to the formation of the coalition Uniting to Combat NTDs.

Chan also underscored the role played by WHO’s 2010 World Health Report in launching the movement toward universal health coverage, which sits at the center of discussions today on health under the Sustainable Development Goals. She said that Every Woman Every Child was the “most game-changing strategy” launched during her term as WHO chief, in that it helped open up financial support for, and several initiatives towards, maternal and child health.

The WHO has also worked in areas that were “less visible” to those assessing the aid agency’s relevance, such as helping set up specialized laboratories focused on surveillance and diagnosis of priority pathogens globally, Chan said. And the World Health Assembly has raised the profiles of issues such as mental health and viral hepatitis.

Amid the successes, however, Chan’s administration is likely to be remembered for its slow response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014, which spawned a series of evaluations leading to reforms within the health body. One of those included the establishment of WHO’s new health emergencies program. The crisis also inspired the creation of different facilities, including the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, or CEPI, which aims to speed up the development of priority vaccines identified by WHO through multi-stakeholder partnerships to better prepare the world for the next pandemic.

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More recently, the agency has come under fire for its inability to rein in excess spending. The same day that the 70th World Health Assembly opened, the Associated Press released a report detailing WHO staff members’ expensive traveling habits. The report alleged Chan “often flew first class” despite pressure from member states on the agency to reduce spending. (In a WHO news release, the agency denied Chan flies first class and insisted it has strict policies on travel.)

Continuing WHO reform will be one of the biggest issues to be put on the plate of the next director-general. But such change will rely on continuous financial support from WHO’s stakeholders. The WHO’s Contingency Fund for Emergencies, however, has so far received just over 30 percent of its $100 million target. WHO’s health emergencies program is suffering the same underfunding.

Though Chan did not touch upon the funding shortfalls in her final speech, she urged WHO to remember its core reason for being.

“Above all, remember the people. Behind every number is a person who defines our common humanity and deserves our compassion, especially when suffering or premature death can be prevented.”

Follow our reporters @AdvaSal and @JennyLeiRavelo for their coverage of the 70th World Health Assembly and the new WHO director-general.

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.