Selecting WHO’s Next Africa Regional Director: An Interview with Candidate Dr. Jean Marie Okwo-Bele

November 03, 2014

In November the World Health Organization will select its next regional director for Africa. As we wrote in a previous blog, this position is not posted publicly and is without an independent mechanism in place to recommend, interview, and evaluate the best qualified candidates.

This interview is the second in a series of three with candidates for the WHO Africa regional directorship. To view other blogs in this series, click below.

We invited each candidate to use the Center’s platform to discuss his or her vision for the future of the WHO Regional Office for Africa (WHO AFRO), how he or she sees current challenges, and why he or she is best suited for the position. As part of a series of blogs on this topic, Dr. Jean Marie Okwo-Bele,  currently Director of the WHO Department of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals, provides us with his views on current challenges and vision for the future of WHO AFRO.


After finishing his medical degree in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Dr. Okwo-Bele has worked globally in roles in the areas of immunization, child and maternal health, and disease control. Dr. Okwo-Bele was a program manager in the department of childhood and communicable diseases in the DRC’s ministry of health before joining WHO AFRO to support the region’s immunization programs. He led the launch of the polio eradication campaign in 1994, which resulted in the reduction of endemic countries from 34 to 2 in 2001 in the region. After serving as chief of the Global Immunization Program at UNICEF, Dr. Okwo-Bele has been director of the WHO department of immunization, vaccines, and biologicals since 2004.


Dr. Okwo-Bele has also led Ebola control efforts on two occasions, including this year. In 1995, Dr. Okwo-Bele was part of the control of the outbreak in DRC. “Then, I was in charge of investigating field notification of suspected cases and contact tracing. All cases were contained in a period of about six months,” Dr. Okwo-Bele said. “This year, I was sent to DRC where an outbreak was on the brink.” He applauded the DRC’s ministry of health: “they managed to get the support of several partners and to implement measures at maximum capacity at the very beginning. For instance, there was a dedicated helicopter, 45 cars, and 150 motorcycles for that relatively tiny outbreak. The last reported case was on October 4, so fingers crossed we’re getting over it.”

Q: What are the biggest challenges in health for the region?

“Africa has a lot to do,” Dr. Okwo-Bele began.

“There are excessive premature deaths across all age groups. Those deaths are due to communicable disease as well as non-communicable disease—and violence. You have unacceptably high maternal mortality and quite high child mortality; many are avoidable deaths. These are some of the most pressing health problems; Ebola is only one of the problems in Africa, further highlighting that we have weak health systems.”

Dr. Okwo-Bele added: “AFRO should become more effective in collecting and managing health information which then can help to inform strong, effective interventions.”

Q: What are three things you might do to rebrand WHO AFRO?

“We need solid thinking so that AFRO becomes even more credible.” To that end, Dr. Okwo-Bele suggests his agenda, the ‘New Deal.’ “Internally, I’d like to see three things: reinforced governance, culture of performance, [and] culture of accountability,” Dr. Okwo-Bele said.

“[Governance, performance, and accountability] must be enforced by a management committee that truly helps to oversee AFRO reform and follows an implementation plan. For example, there are rules and procedures for hiring staff, but it has to be enforced and it has to be transparent.”

Dr. Okwo-Bele envisions a few specific steps to get the ‘New Deal’ in motion. “As we get started, I would put in place more details and indicators – specific actions for each part of the ‘New Deal.’ There will be periodic reviews by the management committee, to ensure strict adherence to the set standards.

He hopes that staff will have clear, annual objectives. “Staff should be working towards those objectives,” he said. “We need an internal managerial system that allows us to track results against resources assigned to the program. Right now, the use of it is suboptimal—we can do better.”

Q: What are your hopes for WHO AFRO moving forward?

“What I would like to see is a revitalized regional office that is capable of mobilizing stakeholders in the region—and abroad—to work with countries to lead necessary policy reforms to enable countries strive to reach universal health coverage,” Dr. Okwo-Bele said.

“All countries are doing some kind of reforms to advance the health agenda. I would like to see a coherent policy that shows how we can get better health outcomes. That includes among others things designing the best benefits packages and prepayment financing schemes that can get these outcomes. We see this interest in places like Rwanda, Senegal, Ghana, and Gabon.”


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.