WHO’s First African Director-General and His Promise to Universal Health Coverage

As it is noted by the liberal school of thought of international relations, International Organizations (IOs) serve as an important platform to maintain global socio-economic and political order. Several International Organizations such as League of Nations, United Nations, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund have established to keep the above-noted goal. Nevertheless, however, during the past several decades IOs hardly maintained their objectives. In most instances, IOs served as a tool to enhance the interest of powerful states rather than the entire international community.

As many reports highlight, more than half the world population is living in underdeveloped countries, where persistent socio-economic and political problems exist. Despite this fact, however, people of the underdeveloped countries are deprived of the various services provided by IOs. This is also the case when we see the services of the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO together with other departments of the U.N. was established with the aim of maintaining a vibrant and productive international community whose health is properly protected. However, when we examine its accomplishments of the past several decades, it is hard to say the WHO is maintaining its prime objective. Especially its role in less developed countries is very minimal. In spite of this fact, however, many people of the underdeveloped countries are losing their life due to diseases that can be treated and healed such as malaria and tuberculosis.

Although one can mention several factors responsible for this unjust role of the WHO, less developed countries limited representation in this organization worth to mention. Moreover, the extremely limited decision making power of representatives from underdeveloped countries is a principal reason. Hence, to make IOs more responsive to the problems of the international community, it is critical to enhancing the role of less developed countries representatives in decision making.

In this respect, the election of Dr Tedros Adhanom, from Ethiopia, as Director-General of the WHO is a promising start. On 23 May 2017, the WHO held its 70th General Assembly and member states elected Dr Tedros Adhanom as the new Director-General. He will start his five- year term as the first African to head up the WHO. He got the maximum vote of the member states than the other two nominees: Dr David Nabaro of Britain and Dr Saniya Nishtan of Pakistan.

In his short remark during the election, Dr Tedros promised to stand up for the rights of the poor. In addition, he also noted that “all roads should lead to universal health coverage. I will not rest until we have met this.” In fact, the effort to maintain universal health coverage needs time and a combined action. However, the newly elected Director-General’s background and his personal experiences give him the energy to achieve better.

Tedros worked as Ethiopia’s health minister from 2005 to 2012 and introduced several innovative reforms that helped the resource-poor country to enhance its health delivery system. Furthermore, as director of the Wellcome Trust, Dr Jeremy Farrar, remarked: “as someone who has worked tirelessly to reform health systems in Ethiopia and across Africa, he will bring great insight and the political leadership necessary to restore trust in the WHO at a critical moment in its history.”

Together with the above-noted academic and work experience, his African origin by itself has its own insight for the new director’s achievement in enhancing the health service of the global poor. As compared to other areas, Africa is one of the regions where the world’s biggest health challenges such as Aids, Malaria, Ebola and Tuberculosis have been causing severe impacts. This first-hand experience of the new Director-General inspires him for future persistent policy measures to achieve universal health coverage.

Together with the above-noted benefits, the appointment of Tedros to lead the global health agency also assist the course of incorporating the African agency in designing health policies. Hence, unlike that of the previous policies which disregard socio-economic and political differences, new approaches will take into consideration differences among citizens. This will enable African state as well as non-state actors to participate actively in achieving the prime objectives of the WHO.

In fact, the idea of incorporating the African agency in policy formulation is widely propagated by many African leaders as well as thinkers. Among these prominent African personalities, the former Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi is worth to mention. In many international forums, Meles and many other African leaders persistently presented the need to establish a new partnership between Africa and the international community. This partnership aims to strengthen the active participation of the African agency on various matters. Continuous efforts in this initiative finally led to the establishment of the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD). Together with other issues, NEPAD has formulated health related projects. This project aimed to reduce the burden of disease on the people of Africa and to empower the people of Africa to act to improve their own health.

While he was a Minister of Health of Ethiopia, the newly elected WHO director general actively involved and contributed to the aforementioned objectives of NEPAD. As some analysts argue, Dr Tedros’s engagement with the above-noted projects provides him with the extra energy to incorporate the African agency in his effort to assure universal health coverage of the WHO. The strong support given by the African Union during Tedros’s election campaign can be noted as a good illustration of the above argument. In their 17 May 2017 release, the African Ambassadors to the United Nations in Geneva asserted that “WHO is at a crossroads and requires a determined reformer. We are calling on all WHO Member States and regional country groups to support and vote for Dr Tedros.”

Hence, the election of the first African director general of the WHO is a strategic decision of the member states. This decision will inspire the organization to achieve its prime objective of having a healthy and productive global society. Most importantly, Dr Tedros will have a special role to achieve the universal health coverage by culminating the deep injustices of healthcare between the developed and developing world.

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Dr. Muzeyen Hawas SEBSEBE
Muzeyen Hawas Sebsebe was born in 1977, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He attended his primary, junior and highschool education at Addis Ababa. In 1999 he has joined Bahir Dar University, History Department. In July 2002 he has defended his thesis entitled the Biography of Aklilu Habtewold and grduated İn BED degree. In 2008 he has obtained his MA degree in Social Anthropology from Addis Ababa University. He wrote His MA thesis on the Provision of Household Food Security and Womens Pivotal Role. From 2009-2011 he has worked as lecturer at Dilla University, School of Social Science and Humanities, Department of Anthropology. During his stay at Dilla University, he has provided various Anthropological courses. Currently, he is writing his PhD dissertation entitled Diversification of Ethiopia’s Foreign Policy: Post-Cold War era Ethio-Turkish Relation as a case Analysis. His research interest areas includes foreign policy, regional integration, regional and international organizations. Together with his academic activities, he is also active on various Ethiopian students activities in Turkey. He actively engages in founding organizations such as Habeshistan Development and Cooperation Association and Horn of Africa Strategic Study Center