'Lack of solidarity' cost Pacific nations senior WHO representation, former candidate says

Dr. Colin Tukuitonga, former WHO Pacific office candidate. Photo by: ©FAO/Alessandra Benedetti

CANBERRA — Pacific islands lost the opportunity for senior representation at the World Health Organization by failing to cooperate in the recent vote for the Western Pacific regional director, according to former candidate Dr. Colin Tukuitonga.

Tukuitonga, director-general of the Pacific Community, spoke at the annual ST Lee Lecture at the Australian National University College of Asia and the Pacific on the challenges facing the Pacific region.

It’s a lack of solidarity in the Pacific that he considers the greatest risk. It was also this lack of unity that cost Tukuitonga the role of Western Pacific regional director, he said.

“On the day, Papua New Guinea, Solomons, Vanuatu, and Fiji didn’t honor their commitment.”

— Dr. Colin Tukuitonga, former WHO Pacific office candidate

Tukuitonga said that he would have been able to provide a stronger role in decision-making for a region where clean water, noncommunicable diseases, life expectancy, and infant mortality are issues threatening the health and economic potential of nations — and provided better information to shape decisions on health-related matters.

But Japanese medical doctor Takeshi Kasai was confirmed as the new regional director of the WHO Western Pacific office in late January instead. The campaign and its outcome is still a fresh wound for Tukuitonga — one he finds hard to comprehend.

“That’s a clear example where solidarity didn’t work,” he explained. “The fact is the health ministers asked me to stand; reluctantly I did,” he told Devex. “But on the day, Papua New Guinea, Solomons, Vanuatu, and Fiji didn’t honor their commitment, while Polynesia remained united.”

Insights from the regional director campaign

Pacific health ministers unanimously nominated Tukuitonga in 2017 for the regional director position, and the medical doctor campaigned for almost a year before the final vote in October 2018. He came second in the final tally behind Japan’s candidate, marking the third time Japan has taken leadership of the Western Pacific office since 1951.

“I was spending some of my own money,” Tukuitonga said. “I was lucky that the New Zealand government helped with the campaign, but it was my time, my energy, my lack of sleep, and my money.”

His campaign pushed for five priorities: a fair share of the WHO budget to go to the Western Pacific region; response to regional priorities; quality health care for all; an emphasis on workplace culture; and effective leadership and management.

The information that filtered back to Tukuitonga suggested that his campaigning and lobbying “didn’t matter in the end, because [several Pacific nations] had made an emotional and ideological decision to support Japan in exchange for whatever they got from Japan,” Tukuitonga said. “But the whole U.N. process for selecting these things are ... unfortunate.”

Olivia Lawe Davies, regional communications manager at the WHO Regional Office for the Western Pacific, said WHO has been strengthening its support to Pacific Island countries in recent years, with Kasai aiming to build on this platform and further strengthen work.

Heath security, NCDs, and climate change were all priorities promoted by Kasai in his campaign, which Davies said were also priorities for Pacific nations.

Kasai is continuing to engage with Pacific leaders to advance their health needs, she said: “Dr. Kasai is traveling to the Pacific this month to meet with heads of government, ministers of health, and other key stakeholders in Fiji, Kiribati, and Papua New Guinea to further discuss WHO’s work in the coming five years and how WHO can best support them.”

The impact of the vote

According to Davies, there are “clear policies and procedures” to follow for elective office to ensure they are open, fair, and based on the merits of the individual candidates — all found in a code of conduct.

Member states, she said, were expected to “act in good faith.” And this included refraining from improperly influencing the nomination process — including granting or accepting financial or other benefits as a quid pro quo for the support of a candidate.

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“Member states and candidates should not make promises or commitments in favour of, or accept instructions from, any person or entity, public or private, when that could undermine, or be perceived as undermining, the integrity of the nomination process,” she said.

But Tukuitonga still questions the process.

“There are 16 votes from the Pacific Islands and if they had simply stuck together, in solidarity, it would have been a done deal,” he said.

This year will be the final year for Tukuitonga as director-general of the SPC, a role he has held since 2014. He has no clear plans after he steps down, he said, but plenty of potential opportunities.

“You live and learn,” Tukuitonga said.

About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.