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One of the most important jobs in the world will be decided in early November: the World Health Organization’s (WHO) next regional director for Africa. With an annual budget of more than US$1 billion (about 30 percent of the WHO budget) and responsibility for “leadership in matters critical to health,” the person in charge could make a huge difference for health in Africa where much of the world’s disease burden is concentrated.  However, the position has not been posted publicly and there is no independent mechanism in place to recommend, interview and evaluate the best qualified candidates.    

Traditionally, the choice of candidate has been utterly political, nominated by one of the region’s governments, horse-traded alongside other political goodies, and ratified via bloc voting, with predictable results for the quality of leadership. The lagging WHO AFRO response (also here) to the 2014 West African Ebola outbreak is just the most recent and visible example.

In September 2009, the G-20 called for the “the heads and senior leadership of all international institutions [to] be appointed through an open, transparent and merit-based process.” My colleagues and I agree; we believe the WHO AFRO appointment should not be based on nationality or political horse-trading, but on the basis of merit and substance. 

A WHO AFRO leader needs to be a universally respected authority in health who can speak out credibly and forcefully during emergencies such as Ebola. Technical rigor, scrupulous honesty, and leadership skills will be the most necessary attributes for the position, as will be someone who can mobilize rapid reaction teams and deploy resources to fast-moving crises. And it doesn’t have to be a medical doctor—someone with an epidemiology, public health, or policy background with the right qualifications can also be a good choice.  

It’s not only US-based researchers who think this way; last year, Dr. Francis Omaswa, director of the African Centre for Global Health and Social Transformation, told the Lancet: “Africa needs to make sure that a strong technical person is elected who is an advocate for health—someone strong from outside and not just an in-house appointment. There should be an advertisement with a personal specification for the job, and then an independent mechanism should be put in place to interview the candidates and evaluate them, and award the position to the best performer in that process.”

The WHO should therefore use this upcoming transition of leadership as an opportunity to reform its hiring practices to ensure the very best candidate – someone who can use limited resources to transform health – gets the job. Of course, this would be the best case scenario.

In the meantime, given the limitations of the current hiring process, I have invited the current candidates to use CGD’s platform to discuss their vision for the future of WHO AFRO, how they see current challenges, and why they are best suited for the position, as we have done as part of other multilateral leadership transitions (e.g., at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development).  Stay tuned to see if there is a response.

Disclaimer

CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.