In Focus

WHO regional director elections in three key regions spark controversy


In its latest editorial, The Lancet has raised concerns about the selection processes and the suitability of some nominees including the daughter of the prime minister of Bangladesh

As the three WHO regions gear up to elect new regional directors this year for Eastern Mediterranean, South-East Asia, and the Western Pacific, controversies have already arisen.

In its latest editorial, The Lancet has raised concerns about the selection processes and the suitability of some nominees. 

“Concerns have been raised regarding the opacity of the candidate selection processes and the resulting suitability of some nominees. These concerns threaten to delegitimize both the election process and the future credibility of elected WHO Regional Directors,” the editorial reads.

The journal has pointed out “apparent nepotism in the nomination of candidates for election in the South-East Asia region—one candidate is the daughter of the nominating country’s Prime Minister.”

Such examples, the editorial added, damage trust in the integrity of WHO’s leaders. 

“Some regions have made changes in an effort to increase transparency and trust,” the Lancet said. “The Western Pacific region, for example, has introduced a live public forum, in which candidates can present their manifestos.”

In March 2023, WHO decided to terminate the appointment of Takeshi Kasai, the then Regional Director for the Western Pacific region, due to evidence of abusive conduct. In September 2022, the WHO placed Dr Takeshi Kasai, “on leave” while conducting an investigation, following revelations by an AP investigation of dozens of staffers accusing him of racist, abusive, and unethical behavior.

The Lancet has pointed out that despite the rhetoric of gender equality, men continue to be over-represented in global health leadership. Only one of the six candidates nominated for the Eastern Mediterranean Regional Director position is a woman.

The Lancet’s editorial highlighted that the Regional Directors wield significant convening power, representing their regions in global forums.

“Their reputation for independence and integrity is the foundation for their ability to expedite action. It is time to take elections for WHO’s Regional Directors more seriously.”

Monir Islam, former WHO representative in Thailand and Namibia and former director of health systems development at the WHO, Geneva, wrote on X on Friday that he is surprised to see “a well coordinated nasty negative campaign going on against Bangladesh candidate for WHO SEARO RD candidate.”

“First it’s Mukesh Kapila and now the Lancet. I have worked under 5 DGs and many more RDs. I can tell stories about all those!!!” he wrote on twitter.

The reports in the Indian press have revealed that  India is likely to support candidate Saima Wazed, for the top WHO post in Southeast Asia.

“Bangladesh thanked the Government of India for confirming support for their candidate for the Director of the South East Asian Regional Office of the WHO in 2023. The candidate is Saima Wazed, the daughter of the Bangladesh Prime Minister. The other candidate is Dr Shambhu Prasad Acharya, who was nominated by Nepal,”  The Press Information Bureau of India said on March 27.

Wazed’s bio at X reads: “Public health policy. Revamping #Bangladesh’s approach to mental health & disabilities. Candidate for  @WHOSEARO Regional Director. Keen nature photographer.”

In her pinned tweet Wazed has picture with outgoing regional director Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh that read: “Ms Saima Hossain has played a path-breaking role in advocating for autism at the national, regional and global levels to ensure that there is a national policy. commitment and essential education, health and social services available for autistic children . As a specialist school psychologist with an M.Sc. in Clinical Psychology from Barry University, Florida, she is the driving force behind Bangladesh’s leadership in advancing the cause of autism in South-East Asia and worldwide.”

Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, an Indian national, became the first woman to assume the office of WHO Regional Director for South-East Asia on 1 February 2014. In September 2018 member states unanimously nominated Dr Khetrapal Singh for a second five-year term as Regional Director. The 144th Session of the WHO Executive Board formally appointed her to the position on 26 January 2019.

WHO Regional Director election

The elections for WHO Regional Directors in the Western Pacific, South-East Asia, and Eastern Mediterranean regions, three of six WHO regional offices, occur every five years. Candidates are nominated by regional member states, with each region autonomously managing its election process.

On August 18, WHO announced the names of the candidates:  Saima Wazed, nominated by Bangladesh, and Dr Shambhu Prasad Acharya, nominated by Nepal for the election of the next Regional Director for the World Health Organization South-East Asia Region.

The WHO South-East Asia Region is home to over 2 billion people, representing a quarter of the world’s population.

The election will take place in New Delhi during a closed-door SEARO session from October 30 to November 2. The winner will be decided based on the majority of votes cast by the 11 member countries, including Bangladesh, Bhutan, North Korea, India, Indonesia, the Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Timor-Leste.

The nomination will then be submitted for appointment during the 154th session of the WHO Executive Board, taking place from January 22 to 27, 2024, in Geneva, Switzerland. The newly appointed Regional Director will assume office on February 1, 2024, for a five-year term and be eligible for reappointment once.

Dr. Shambhu Prasad Acharya, currently serving as Director, Country Strategy and Support for WHO under Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus at the WHO’s Geneva headquarters, brings extensive experience to the role. Meanwhile, Saima Wazed is a trained psychologist and advisor to the Bangladesh Government.

The WHO Executive Board comprises 34 members, each serving a three-year term and designated by their WHO region: seven from the African Region, six from the Region of the Americas, five from the Eastern Mediterranean Region, eight from the European Region, three from the South-East Asia Region, and five from the Western Pacific Region.

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