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Breaking the WHO’s Glass Ceiling

TORONTO/NEW YORK – This year, the World Health Organization will elect a new Director-General. Last September, WHO member states nominated six candidates for the position: Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Flavia Bustreo, Philippe Douste-Blazy, David Nabarro, Sania Nishtar, and Miklós Szócska. On January 25, the WHO Executive Board will shortlist three candidates; and in May, the World Health Assembly will elect one of those candidates to succeed Margaret Chan.

All of the candidates have presented a vision for how they would lead the organization, and we personally know and admire several of them. But, ultimately, we believe that Ghebreyesus is the most qualified person for the job. Our endorsement is based on three considerations that are important in any hiring process, and especially for a position such as this: the candidate’s past achievements, leadership style, and the diversity that he or she brings to the table.

With respect to the first consideration, Ghebreyesus has a proven track record of success. As Ethiopia’s health minister from 2005 to 2012, he championed the interests of all of the country’s citizens, and strengthened primary-care services. He created 3,500 health centers and 16,000 health posts, and dramatically expanded the health-care workforce by building more medical schools and deploying more 38,000 community-based health extension workers.

Ghebreyesus’s efforts now serve as a model that other countries seek to emulate as they try to achieve universal health coverage for their citizens. He is the only candidate who has achieved such results at a national level.

Ghebreyesus is also a longtime champion and advocate of gender equality and the rights of women and girls. In fact, his efforts to strengthen Ethiopia’s health system played a crucial role in more than doubling the percentage of Ethiopian women with access to contraception, and in reducing maternal mortality by 75%.

When Ghebreyesus was Ethiopia’s foreign minister from 2012 to 2016, he gained extensive diplomatic experience, not least by leading negotiations for the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, the international community’s plan to finance the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. This same knack for diplomacy is now needed to bring WHO member states together for cooperative action on collective health challenges.

Ghebreyesus’s leadership style is also perfectly suited for this role: he speaks last, and encourages others to share their views. He also knows how to spot and nurture talent, and how to bring the best out of the people around him. He would undoubtedly boost organizational morale and motivate the staff to deliver maximum value and efficiency – to the benefit of all member states and their citizens. And while he is a receptive listener, he is also decisive, which is an attribute for the leader of the world’s foremost health institution, especially during global public-health emergencies.

Then there is Ghebreyesus’s extensive leadership experience within global health institutions. As Board Chair of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria between 2009 and 2011, and as Chair of the Roll Back Malaria Partnership between 2007 and 2009, Ghebreyesus pushed through sweeping changes that dramatically improved both organizations’ operations. What’s more, he helped them raise record-breaking financial commitments from donors: $11.7 billion for the Global Fund, and $3 billion for Roll Back Malaria.

This is precisely the kind experience and expertise that the WHO needs in today’s global health environment, and it explains why the African Union has officially endorsed Ghebreyesus’s candidacy. Amazingly, in its almost 70-year history, the WHO has never had a Director-General from Africa. This fact alone is not a reason to pick a candidate; but in Ghebreyesus’s case, his direct experience working in developing countries makes him uniquely qualified to tackle our toughest global health problems, which tend to hit developing countries the hardest.

It is time to break the WHO’s African-leadership glass ceiling. Sustainable development is truly achievable only when leaders of global institutions are from the communities most affected by those institutions’ work.

Ghebreyesus’s candidacy presents the WHO with an historic opportunity, which its Executive Board should seize on January 25.