Tedros gives first address to WHO staff: 'My door will always be open'

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Gbebreyesus. Photo by: UNICEF Ethiopia / CC BY-NC-ND

The new director-general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has outlined three overarching priorities in his first address to staff this week — emphasizing an open leadership style and a commitment to listening to staff concerns.

Reflecting the priorities emphasized during his leadership campaign and the transition period following his election in May, Tedros spoke about achieving universal health care coverage; measuring and delivering results, including bringing more efficiency and value for money to WHO’s work in the hope of gaining the trust of member states, partners and donors; and engaging and motivating staff.

He also stressed the need for a unified approach to the organization’s work, telling staff that “our team needs to work as one.” He will arrange regular meetings with staff members to ensure their voices can be heard, he said.

Concrete plans to advance gender equality in senior management and to improve transparency in the organization’s work were notably missing from the list, however.

Universal health coverage

On leadership priorities, Tedros reiterated his focus on achieving universal health coverage, linking this to his commitments to ensuring that the world is prepared for the next epidemic; to guaranteeing every woman, child and adolescent’s health and well-being, including in humanitarian and fragile settings; and to WHO’s role in mitigating — not just adapting to — the impacts of climate change on health.

He talked about the wide range of expertise on different communicable and noncommunicable diseases that allows WHO to effectively assist countries in their health challenges — including work on the full eradication of polio — but said the organization’s experts need to work together.

“These individual areas of expertise are like the players on a football team. Each needs to be strong to win. But without teamwork, we will not win. Our team needs to work as one… and universal health coverage is the captain of the team,” he said.

Improving efficiency

To gain the confidence of member states, partners and donors — old and new — Tedros said he is aiming for WHO to be “synonymous with results” and to be the “partner of choice” in global health. He will explore ways to strengthen WHO’s work at the country level, he said, including in equipping country office heads with “super technical capacity,” political leadership and resource mobilization skills, as well as in harmonizing WHO’s business model and resource mobilization.

“I was extremely surprised to learn that there are over 3000 separate grants managed by the World Health Organization,” he said in his speech. “Just think about the transaction costs. This is unacceptable.”

He also said he is “thoroughly” reviewing WHO’s travel expenses, following a media uproar over the issue, reminding staff to be “good stewards of our resources.”

An open door

Tedros understands that many of his goals depend on the organization as a whole. His first meeting after being elected as director-general, he said, was with the WHO Headquarters Staff Association Committee. He indicated that he plans to meet with WHO staff associations in the different WHO regions as well.

“I told them I will always listen,” he said. “My answer will not always be ‘yes’, but when it’s ‘no’ I will give my reasons and I will engage them in the decision.”

To emphasize his commitment to engaging with staff, Tedros said he intends to set up a regular time to meet with them, encouraging his directors and WHO managers at all levels of the organization to follow his lead.

“My door will always be open to staff,” he said. “Listening to our staff is a bottom line.”

He added that he has given his mobile number to WHO directors and assistant directors-general, so that they can reach him “any time” to continue their “candid” discussions on how to improve the organization.

“If WHO is not healthy internally, then it will not be able to interact effectively externally,” he said.

In an interview with Devex during his leadership campaign, Tedros emphasized the importance of “listening” to different stakeholders when it comes to discussion of reforms. He added that reform of the WHO is among his priorities — but, perhaps wary of reform fatigue among his staff, he said in his speech that he doesn’t believe in “perpetual reform,” instead underlining the need for “continuous improvement.”

Tedros has yet to identify his leadership team, and has asked existing senior management to stay on in their positions for a few more months.

He added that WHO will continue to recruit openly based on merit, but that this will be done “fairly” and will be “seen from global or geographic and gender perspectives.”

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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.