The Lancet – WHO last week fired a starting pistol to launch the election for its next Director-General. The final vote does not take place until May, 2017. Procedures have been substantially revised since 2012, when Margaret Chan was elected to serve a second term. It is likely that this lengthy process will therefore be more transparent, accountable, and disputatious (and considerably less corrupt) than past elections.
The deadline for member states to nominate candidates is Sept 22. Several prominent individuals have already disclosed their intentions to stand. Philippe Douste-Blazy served two terms as France’s Minister of Health and subsequently became Foreign Minister. He has been a leader on innovative financing for health and has chaired UNITAID since 2006. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is currently Ethiopia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. He was Minister of Health from 2005–12. The African Union has endorsed him as the sole African candidate for Director-General. Sania Nishtar, Pakistan’s former Minister of Health (among several other government portfolios), has had a distinguished career as a civil society leader. She founded the influential non-governmental organisation Heartfile in 1999. All three candidates are highly accomplished global health leaders, which bodes well for the future of WHO.
Others will no doubt be nominated. Next month’s World Health Assembly will be a useful opportunity for member states to take soundings about the issues that will decide the election (geography, gender, and proven political skills will likely be as important as technical expertise). In January, 2017, the Executive Board can propose up to three names to be considered by the World Health Assembly. Some observers believe it is Africa’s turn to lead WHO. That judgment may be fair, but we trust that merit will also be an important quality tested by member states.
Is it now time for Margaret Chan to turn her attention to life after Geneva? No, it is not. In her final 12 months, Dr Chan should embrace her unprecedented freedom to speak without scruple and act without fear. Now is her best moment to make WHO the supremely radical voice for health equity and social justice it should be.