Last week, the new dispensation at the World Health Organisation (WHO) led by Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was forced to rescind its decision to designate Zimbabwe’s longstanding President Robert Mugabe as the WHO goodwill ambassador for non-communicable diseases (NCDs). Mugabe has been ruler of Zimbabwe since 1980 — first as Prime Minister and, since 1987, as President. The previous appointee to the post was Michael Bloomberg, a three-term Mayor of New York City, who has given several hundred million dollars to public health philanthropy, and whose Bloomberg Philanthrophies has been doing work on NCDs for a while now.
When and why was Mugabe appointed?
On October 20 Dr Ghebreyesus announced that Mugabe, now 93 years old, will “serve as the WHO goodwill ambassador on NCDs for Africa after Zimbabwe established a levy fund for NCDs, an innovative domestic resource mobilisation approach that other countries can learn from”. Ambassadors, according to the WHO website, are well-known personalities from the worlds of arts, literature, entertainment, sport or other fields of public life who commit to contribute to WHO’s efforts to raise awareness of important health problems and solutions. Appointed for two years at a time, they work closely with the WHO to draw attention to its overall priorities or a specific health issue affecting people’s lives and well-being.
So why was that a problem?
A global outcry ensued, with prominent global organisations and experts including the NCD Alliance — a network uniting 2,000 civil society organisations in more than 170 countries — expressing dismay at the decision. The NCD Alliance and 32 other organisations across the world, including the University of Edinburgh, Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance, World Heart Federation, and Hriday, said in a statement that they were “shocked and deeply concerned to hear of this appointment, given President Mugabe’s long track record of human rights violations and undermining the dignity of human beings. Given these systematic abuses and his approach to NCDs and tobacco control in the past, NCD civil society… believe that (the) appointment… cannot be justified”.
Dr Ghebreyesus, himself a former Foreign Minister of Ethiopia who would presumably have anticipated these reactions, tweeted on October 21: “I’m listening. I hear your concerns. Rethinking the approach in light of WHO values. I will issue a statement as soon as possible.” The following day, he issued a statement: “Over the last few days, I have reflected on my appointment of… Mugabe as WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Noncommunicable Diseases in Africa. As a result I have decided to rescind the appointment.”
Was this under pressure from activists?
More than just a clutch of anti-tobacco and anti-alcohol organisations were dismayed at Mugabe’s appointment. That included some of the biggest backers in Dr Ghebreyesus’s election to the WHO top job — Norway and Canada. Norway is very vocal on human rights, and signals from many European countries, including the UK, is not likely to have brought comfort to the cash-strapped WHO. While fundraising is something Dr Ghebreyesus is expected to specifically concentrate on, the goodwill ambassador, too, has this role — and Mugabe, given the strong global criticism, could hardly have been expected to be very successful.
What is the criticism against Mugabe?
Mugabe became Prime Minister in 1980, and in 1987, after Parliament amended the constitution, he was appointed President, a position that was Head of State, Head of Government, and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces rolled into one. He has been President ever since, presiding over a regime that has been accused of anti-white racial discrimination — which eventually led to catastrophic food shortage, inflation and malnutrition — an economic disaster, and massive corruption. Economic wrongdoings of alleged cronies of Mugabe featured in the Panama Papers. He has been accused of subjecting parliamentarians to arrest and torture.
What does the reversal of the decision mean for the new WHO dispensation?
It is no small embarrassment, especially because Dr Ghebreyesus has a reputation for being savvy. All African nations voted for him en bloc and many European and Asian nations, including India and Pakistan, put their weight behind him. The fact that the decision was quickly withdrawn has won him some brownie points for being “open”, but the controversy was avoidable.