March 2017

By Jeremiah J. Baronberg

This May, the World Health Organization (WHO) will elect its next director-general to lead the 194-nation United Nations membership agency. The WHO was created with the charge of helping safeguard the health of the world’s population by focusing on global preparedness and responding to public health challenges.

Amidst transnational challenges such as Ebola and Zika, this year’s election is seen by many observers as having particular significance. Debate surrounding the WHO’s structure, mandate, and identity have been swirling in recent years and have generated hope that the agency will bring in decisive and inspirational leadership that can make the case for greater investment in public health. With an annual budget of $2 billion, the organization’s guaranteed funding has been frozen for more than a decade, leaving its director-general since 2006 Dr. Margaret Chan to say, “My successor needs to continue to address the financing of (the) WHO. There’s no two ways about it.”

The actual process for selecting the WHO’s leadership has been under increased scrutiny. This year, for the first time since its founding in 1948, the vote for the director-general will be open to the organization’s entire membership, not only its executive governing board. Recent calls for increased transparency in the process mean that the candidates must campaign openly in front of their peers and the public and engage in forums designed to better illuminate their visions on the role of the WHO and to answer questions directly from member states themselves. Still, there remain lingering concerns over the newly-designed “one-country-one-vote” procedure, due to its secret ballot system.

The three shortlisted finalists in contention for director-general are: 

  • Dr. Sania Nishtar of Pakistan, former government minister who led the reform of her country’s ministry of health
  • Dr. David Nabarro of the UK, senior UN advisor on the 2030 agenda for sustainable development and climate change

While at one point Dr. Nabarro was seen as a potential frontrunner, concerns over the impact of Brexit and his UN-insider status may have diminished his standing. Others have suggested that it is time for an African candidate to take over the reins. Nevertheless, recent surveys of global health stakeholders responded that, overall, the most important characteristics for the next WHO leader were “vision and ability to set direction” and “ability to build consensus,” followed by “ability to take necessary action independently.”

It is clear that the global health community is waiting with bated breath for the selection of the next WHO leader.