There’s no shortage of threats to global health, nor a shortage of challenges facing the next Director-General of the WHO.
In this final piece of GHN’s Q&A with Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the DG candidate offers his take on the 3 greatest threats to global health and his plans to confront them (think universal health coverage) as well as the need for clear priorities for WHO and the role of politics in the global health arena.
What are the 3 greatest threats to global health and what would you do about them as WHO DG?
The three greatest threats I see are: first, the inequitable access to basic health coverage around the world including access to lifesaving vaccines, diagnostics and drugs. Second, health emergencies, including infectious disease outbreaks and antimicrobial resistance. And third, the health impacts of climate and environmental change.
If I am elected DG, I will advance universal health coverage by ensuring this issue reaches and remains on the agenda of the highest levels of government, driving domestic resources for health, and advocating for the establishment of strong primary health systems and a health-in-all policies approach. Importantly, as I mentioned before, I believe these investments will support efforts to address health emergencies, including antimicrobial resistance, because strong health systems are our first line of defense. At the same time, they will support our efforts to prevent and treat communicable and noncommunicable disease—the later of course being a serious and growing challenge in developing and developed countries alike, which could put a significant strain on all health systems. In addition, I will urgently work to implement the reforms the WHO has already begun in response to the Ebola epidemic. On climate and environmental change, I will support national health authorities to better understand and address the effects on health with a particular focus on countries such as small island nations most affected by these events.
And finally, across all three of these priorities, I will prioritize country and regional ownership as I firmly believe health initiatives that are embraced and owned by countries themselves are most likely to deliver tangible results and achieve scale.
One of the great challenges for the next DG would be to bridge the gap between what WHO does and what’s expected of it. How would you do this?
To address this challenge, it will be critical to set clear priorities. As I have said previously, the right of every individual to basic health services will be my top priority. In addition, particularly in light of the Sustainable Development Goals, it will be essential for WHO to build strong partnerships across sectors and industries. WHO has a rich pool of expertise, but for many priorities—gender, climate change, financing—it is not the leading technical agency. In that context, WHO must lead the way in breaking the silos between our development objectives, and in forging new models to engage and collaborate across different stakeholder groups. Importantly, to be successful, we also need to ensure there is buy-in from among member states around these goals and efforts. That alignment helps fill the gap between what the WHO does and what is expected of it. And it creates an opportunity to mobilize others where the WHO may not be able to fill a particular role.
What’s more important to a DG global health experience or political skills?
The reality is a DG needs to have both the technical global health experience and political skills, as well as operational and diplomatic skills. The DG needs global health experience because the WHO is the leading standard setting organization for the world, and it must support a dramatically diverse set of countries deliver the best health care possible to their communities and citizens.
At the same time, particularly as we move into the Sustainable Development Goal era, the WHO will need to be able to build consensus not only among its member states, but also across the diverse set of stakeholders and sectors global health now touches. Finding points of alignment among these groups will require not just global health experience, but also political and diplomatic acumen. And at the end of the day, we have to remember that the WHO is a large organization making operational skills essential. As I mentioned before, I believe I am the only candidate who has all of these skills. From designing and leading Ethiopia’s own health reform to serving in a leadership capacity in almost all the major global health institutions—Global Fund, UNAIDS, the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health, GAVI and the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME)—to negotiating complex partnerships as Minister of Foreign Affairs, as DG I will bring all these experiences to bear on the most complex global health challenges of our time.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Read other installments of Global Health NOW’s Q&A with Tedros.
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