Editor’s Note: Michael Bociurkiw is a global affairs analyst and former spokesperson for UNICEF and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
Over the weekend, the British government criticized the snap decision to appoint Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe as a Goodwill Ambassador for the World Health Organization (WHO), saying it “risks overshadowing the work undertaken globally by the WHO on non-communicable diseases.”
The announcement roused leaders in foreign capitals from their beds on Saturday and quickly morphed into one of WHO’s worst public relations disasters.
As president, Mugabe has decimated Zimbabwe’s healthcare system and has seen life-expectancy rates fall in his country.
World leaders and health ministers from WHO’s 194 member states were not the only ones to react with aghast at the decision. It took many in WHO by surprise, quickly blew up on social media and left UN communications experts scratching their heads.
Fortunately, the decision was rescinded Sunday in a statement by WHO’s Director General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. While the statement was more of an about-face than an apology, the controversy – which is still smoldering – has the potential to inflict long-term damage to WHO, which has set the gold standard in global public health.
Tweeted reactions to Tedros’ statement on Sunday were mostly scathing.
A former Ethiopian minister of foreign affairs, former minister of health and malaria expert, Tedros was a man who was largely unfamiliar to the world before his inexplicable decision to appoint Mugabe as an advocate for non-communicable diseases (NCDs).
In May he became the first African to be elected as Director General of the WHO and the first head of the organization to be chosen under a new selection procedure with more open and democratic rules.
Hopes were high that Tedros would shake up WHO and lift its reputation after the embarrassing fall it suffered over the mishandling of the Ebola outbreak in 2014 – a response branded by a panel of eminent experts as an “egregious failure.” (The epidemic killed at least 11,300 people in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia).
There’s also pressure on WHO management to reign in its $2 billion budget after the Associated Press cited internal documents showing that the $200 million it spends annually on travel dwarfs what it disburses to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined.
The fact that the Mugabe decision was apparently not widely discussed within WHO could indicate that there was more to the appointment than meets the eye.
Ethiopia and the African Union lobbied extremely hard for Tedros’ candidacy. Now there are legitimate questions whether a backroom deal was made between Tedros and his supporters. What else could explain his decision to back such a controversial choice?
It is no secret that the African Union has been propping up Mugabe. In fact, the dictator announced earlier this year a $1 million contribution to the AU.
In appointing Mugabe, Tedros said that Zimbabwe “places universal health coverage, health promotion at the centre of its policies.” In fact the 91-year-old dictator has ruined his country’s healthcare system and reportedly routinely travels to Singapore for medical treatment – reportedly three times this year alone.
Tedros also said Mugabe could use the role “to influence his peers in his region.” That is a scary prospect, considering that maternal mortality has actually increased during Mugabe’s 37-year rule over Zimbabwe and life expectancy there is lower than it was in the 1980s, according to World Bank data.
On the Human Development Index, Zimbabwe is ranked 154 out of 187 countries. UNICEF says at least one million households are at high risk of exhausting their food stocks between January and March of next year.
WHO last year appointed a very suitable goodwill ambassador for non-communicable diseases: former New York City mayor and billionaire philanthropist Michael Bloomberg, who has already donated significant sums to battling NCDs.
In rescinding the decision to appoint Mugabe, the WHO chief said: “It is my aim to build a worldwide movement for global health. This movement must work for everyone and include everyone.”
One needs to ask: What has Mugabe done for public health that led to the aborted appointment?
There could be more unwelcome fallout ahead: The controversy could also increase the Trump administration’s suspicion of the UN. The US, which is pushing WHO to undertake reform, is the Geneva-based organization’s largest donor.
WHO has a well-earned reputation for being no-nonsense and for tackling some of the world’s most serious and stubborn disease outbreaks. But the Mugabe decision was out of character for WHO and should have never been made in the first place.