The World Health Organization logo. Photo by: US Mission Geneva / CC BY

What do the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the Roll Back Malaria Partnership have in common — aside from being two of the most recognizable global health initiatives today?

Both were launched during the rein of the first female director-general of the World Health Organization, Gro Harlem Brundtland. Roll Back Malaria, in particular, was Brundtland’s brainchild — a project she proposed in her first address as WHO chief to the World Health Assembly.

Brundtland is a doctor, environmentalist and politician. She was the first woman to become prime minister of Norway — a position she held for more than 10 years. She was nominated as WHO director-general by the organization’s executive board in January 1998 and elected the same year. Brundtland officially assumed the position the following July.

Brundtland’s five-year term was an action-packed one. With David Nabarro, a WHO deputy at the time, Brundtland helped establish the Global Fund, launched with broad donor support in January 2002. She helped launch the Roll Back Malaria Partnership with UNICEF, the U.N. Development Program and the World Bank. And she spearheaded the International Tobacco Initiative, a global movement to curb “the global burden of disease and death caused by tobacco.”

(Ever noticed that small print in most WHO job ads explaining that the organization does not recruit smokers? Brundtland was instrumental in crafting this policy.)

Brundtland is now part of the independent international group The Elders alongside Desmond Tutu, Kofi Annan and other luminaries. WHO, meanwhile, is led by Margaret Chan of China, who is expected to win a second 5-year term this year.

The main duties of a WHO director-general are quite straightforward: to serve as chief technical and administrative officer of the U.N. specialized agency, leading its more than 8,000 staff members at its Geneva headquarters as well as six regional offices in Washington, Cairo, Manila, Copenhagen, New Delhi and Brazzavile, and its 147 country offices. The challenges are much more complex, of course — time and resources surely topping that list. The next director-general will also oversee a global scramble to achieve health-related Millennium Development Goals by 2015, and craft follow-up accords to boost maternal and child health and reduce the prevalence of HIV and other diseases, among other things.

Apart from Chan and Brundtland, six individuals have led WHO. The first one was Brock Chisholm (1948-‘53), a Canadian, followed by Marcolino Gomes Candau of Brazil (1953-’73), Halfdan Maler of Denmark (1973-1988) and Hiroshi Nakajima of Japan (1988-1998). Brundtland, who served from 1998 to 2003, was succeeded by Jong-wook Lee (2003-2006); Anders Nordström served as acting director-general for just over six months following Lee’s untimely death.

Read last week’s DevTrivia on Haiti pledges.

About the author

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    Ivy Mungcal

    As former senior staff writer, Ivy Mungcal contributed to several Devex publications. Her focus is on breaking news, and in particular on global aid reform and trends in the United States, Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas. Before joining Devex in 2009, Ivy produced specialized content for U.S. and U.K.-based business websites.