Opinion: Putting people first at the WHO — from ill health to public health emergencies

Dr. Tedros Adhanom (left) with Ricardo Patiño, Ecuador's former foreign affairs minister. Photo by: Fernanda LeMarie / Cancillería del Ecuador / CC BY-SA

Let me share a story with you. In 1987, as a junior public health specialist, I joined a team to control a raging malaria outbreak in southern Ethiopia. It took us almost four weeks to bring the outbreak under control. In that time, I witnessed firsthand so many deaths that I lost count. And I too was infected by malaria.

I bring this up because, in my travels during my campaign to be the next director-general of the World Health Organization, I have met heads of state, ministers of health and ministers of foreign affairs. I’ve discussed the greatest public health concerns and threats of our time. I’ve shared my three decades of experience in public health and politics. But I always find that experiences such as those in southern Ethiopia in 1987 — and having been a victim of malaria myself at that early stage of my career — shapes my conversations.

Read our extended Q&As with the top 3 WHO director-general candidates:

Q&A: WHO candidate Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

Q&A: WHO candidate Sania Nishtar

Q&A: WHO candidate David Nabarro

Also read op-eds from the other candidates:

Opinion: My vision for the WHO

Opinion: A new deal for health

I use malaria as an example because it is personal to me and because it illustrates a larger point around the necessary skills required to be director-general of the WHO. For make no mistake, the WHO is not merely a huge, sprawling, technical institution. It is a public health agency whose decisions and actions can mean the difference between life and death for billions of people who inhabit our increasingly precarious planet. Hands-on, tested and result-focused experience is what is needed to lead this organization that has been a force for so much good in the world since its establishment on April 7, 1948.

I am a public health expert, with a doctorate in community health from the University of Nottingham in the U.K. My Ph.D. studies provided me with an understanding of public health issues that is both deep and wide. My later tenure as minister of health in Ethiopia supplied me with the necessary skills in reforming, leading and managing a bureaucracy and translating policy into action. I witnessed firsthand that community engagement and ownership is a frontline defense for problems ranging from individual ill-health to broad, public health emergencies. In short, I learned how to become a successful implementer.

Subsequently, my tenure as foreign minister allowed me to hone my political negotiating skills, and taught me how to build consensus and coalitions to achieve desired goals. I learned how to navigate megatrends that immensely affect our daily lives, including our health. I urged for greater country ownership and adherence to the International Health Regulations when the West Africa Ebola outbreak evolved from a health issue into economic, social and political crises. I preached the importance of solidarity in overcoming the outbreak as the deadly virus transformed into a global crisis. I have experience, expertise, leadership and management skills and a decisiveness learned the hard way. And I am a good listener.

If I am asked why I am in this race, my answer is simple: Because I care. I care about people as individuals, I care about communities, and I care enough about the world to want to make a positive difference. For me, policy discussions are not abstract debates filled with insider jargon. As an outsider to the WHO bureaucracy — and a person who comes from the developing world — I will ensure that the human faces behind the issues are front and center at every discussion. I will strive to instill a mindset change where meetings and conferences never forget that it is about the who (pardon the pun) more than the what or the how.

There are, of course, very real and practical obstacles facing the WHO in carrying out its mission. Funding, or the lack thereof, is particularly concerning. It is unacceptable that the budget of an institution vital to ensuring humanity's health and the world's progress and prosperity is smaller than some single hospitals in the developed world.

So, I'll be clear about this: One of my first priorities if elected as director-general will be to address this issue. I will work to expand funding sources and to enhance the flexibility and predictability of WHO financing. Member states need to contribute more and show flexibility to make the WHO a truly independent agency in pursuit of improving global health, rather than one totally dependent on a handful of donors.

Secondly, I will work closely with member states to help minimize the penchant to favor parochial, national interests over the regional and global good. Yes, this is a political minefield, but I will strive to promote a mindset that, in situations that do not impinge on essential national sovereignty interests, focuses on a “transcend national, embrace global” and people-first approach.

The world is a completely different place now than it was in the post-World War II era when the WHO was established. We are living in an increasingly complex, hyper-connected planet where humanity is facing an existential threat posed by climate change. And if the WHO is to remain relevant and fulfill its mission, it needs to change with the times.

This op-ed is one in a series from all three WHO candidates. You can read our full coverage and analysis on the election of the next WHO director-general in May 2017.

Devex does not endorse any particular candidate.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

    Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is director-general of the World Health Organization. His distinguished health leadership career spans nearly 30 years. As minister of health from 2005 to 2012, Dr. Tedros transformed Ethiopia’s health system by investing in infrastructure, building the health workforce, and developing innovative ways to direct resources where they were most needed.