11 November 2016

The new WHO Director-General: an exceptional election process with a public Q&A

In the follow-up of the Ebola outbreak and the kick-off of the implementation of the SDGs, high political attention is given to health and Member States of the World Health Organization (WHO) have to make one of the most critical appointments in health, affecting more than seven billion people in the world. They have to decide on the appointment of the Director-General (DG) of WHO in a newly designed selection process. This election is exceptional at many different levels, both procedurally but also politically.

For the first time in history, the Director-General (DG) will be elected through a direct, but secret vote at the World Health Assembly in May 2017. Six candidates from Ethiopia, France, Hungary, Italy, Pakistan, and the UK have presented themselves to the Member States and responded to their questions on 1 and 2 November 2016 at the WHO in Geneva. This event was webcasted and recorded but remained a Member-State-only forum. Therefore, the DG Candidates have been pressured to reach out to a wider range of non-state actors, especially at a time when the next Director-General will be required to bring the newly adopted Framework of Engagement with Non-State Actors (FENSA) to life.

Chatham House together with the Global Health Centre at the Graduate Institute took the initiative to invite the six candidates to facilitate the outreach to civil society through a first-time-ever public forum held in London on 3 November 2016. The event was co-chaired by Prof David Heymann, Head of the Centre on Global Health Security at Chatham House and Suerie Moon, Director of Research at the Global Health Centre.

At this public forum, the moderator of the event, Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the Lancet, interrogated the candidates on the most pressing challenges of health security and WHO reform, but also addressed the broader issues of sustainable development, global health governance and the North-South divide within the WHO. The audience in the room but also those who joined through webcast posed further questions to the candidates related to other global health topics, such as access to medicines, mental health, non-communicable diseases, neglected tropical diseases, as well as gender and equity. Several candidates took the opportunity to commit themselves at this public event to full disclosure of their campaign finance when questioned about the transparency of the election process.

The campaigns of the candidates started with a more open process, even though the election process itself remains ultimately a secretive process determined by political decisions rather than health goals. Yet, the Global Health Centre (GHC) will continue to generate an informed debate and to contribute to more accountability and transparency in this election. For the GHC, this public event is part of a larger project on “What Defines Global Health Leadership in the 21st Century?” which was launched earlier this year with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation. A roundtable discussion among a group of global health leaders spanning different WHO regions was organised together with the Blavatnik School of Government in Oxford In October 2016. The outcome of that meeting were published in an article by Prof Ilona Kickbusch and colleagues at the BMJ prior to the DG Candidates’ public forum in London, highlighting in particular the qualities and political skills required for the next Director-General to be able to drive sustainable change and to broker consensus in an increasing challenging political environment.

A further opportunity to engage with DG Candidates will occur on 6 March 2017 when the GHC will organise a public hearing with the shortlisted three candidates in Geneva. The GHC will partner for this event with the UN Foundation and Chatham House to ensure the best possible outreach. A webcast will be organised. Block the date in your calendar already now to join this next public debate!

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