, GENEVA, Switzerland, Jan 25 – The World Health Organization was set Wednesday to pick three finalists for the role of its next director-general, a high-stakes choice for the powerful agency described as facing an “existential crisis”.
WHO’s executive board was interviewing five remaining candidates before eliminating two by the end of the day.
The three finalists will then campaign for votes among WHO’s 193 member-countries before a final vote in May.
“This is an enormously important election,” the director of Harvard University’s Global Health Institute, Ashish Jha, told AFP.
“It really is an existential crisis for WHO,” added Jha, co-author of a 2015 report calling for sweeping agency reform.
WHO may be the United Nations’ most influential body, coordinating responses to pandemics like Ebola and Zika, but also setting standards for national healthcare systems including in advanced Western countries.
Since 2006, it has been led by Hong Kong-born Margaret Chan, whose tenure has suffered from accusations of inadequate transparency and accountability.
Those complaints boiled over with the 2014 Ebola epidemic in west Africa, when WHO was found to have missed glaring warning signs about the severity of the crisis that ultimately killed more than 11,000 people.
“When you look at the debacle of the Ebola response, no one in Geneva lost their job over that,” further fuelling concerns over accountability, said Jha.
WHO officials often lament their funding constraints, but the Harvard professor said financing problems are caused by the fact that “donors don’t fundamentally trust WHO to do a great job”.
“The new director-general will have a very short window” to restore confidence, he added.
– The short-list –
Former Hungarian health minister Miklos Szocska was eliminated from contention on Tuesday.
The five remaining candidates include Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom, who is backed by the African Union.
The renowned malaria researcher and ex-health minister is bidding to become the first African to lead WHO.
France’s former health minister Philippe Douste-Blazy and ex-Pakistani health minister Sania Nishtar remained in the running, along with veteran WHO and public health executive David Nabarro of Britain.
Italy’s Flavia Bustreo, who with Nishtar is one of two women in contention, is WHO’s deputy chief for family, women’s and children’s health.
David Heymann, who heads the Centre on Global Health Security at London’s Chatham House think-tank, said the next WHO boss should be “a political leader rather than a consensus builder”.
Among the criticisms of the Ebola response was that WHO deferred to governments in the region, notably Guinea, as they initially sought to downplay the dangers of the outbreak.
Faced with an epidemic that has global implications, sounding the alarm and acting boldly should be the WHO chief’s top priority, Heymann argued.
But even if confidence in the agency is near historic lows, most agree it is here to stay.
“WHO can never replaced,” said Heymann, who has held several senior roles in the organisation, stressing its central role in setting global standards.
Harvard’s Jha said when he speaks to US politicians sceptical about funding the agency he reminds them: “If we got rid of WHO today, we would have to create a new one tomorrow.”