WHO Regional Election Sparks Nepotism Concerns in Bangladesh

The coming election to choose the World Health Organization’s next chief of the South-East Asia Regional Office, or SEARO, has become contentious as the person who takes up that post could influence the health of billions of people. 

The daughter of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is one of two candidates for the SEARO position. Saima Wazed’s nomination has sparked controversy with many health experts calling it “nepotism,” and expressing concern over the election process to fill senior roles at the U.N. health body. 

A candidate for the SEARO post should have a “strong technical and public health background and extensive experience in global health”, according to the WHO website. The candidate should also have “competency in organizational management” and “proven historical evidence for public health leadership”, the website says.

The next SEARO chief will be elected through a secret ballot by the region’s 11 member countries, which include Bangladesh, Nepal and India. The vote is scheduled to take place in New Delhi during a WHO regional committee meeting Oct. 30-Nov. 2. 

Countries in the region nominate candidates to head the WHO regional office.

Wazed was nominated by the government of Bangladesh. 

In addition to Wazed, who is a mental health advocate, only one other candidate has been put forward: Shambhu Acharya, a public health expert and senior WHO official who was nominated by Nepal. 

Questions have been raised about the disparity between the candidates’ qualifications.  

Wazed has a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Barry University, a school in Florida. She has spent nearly a decade serving as an adviser to the director general of the WHO on mental health and autism issues. 

Acharya has been with the WHO for almost 30 years. He has experience working with the U.N. body in senior positions and holds a Ph.D. in public health, health policy and financing from the University of North Carolina. 

Sixteen public health experts in Nepal issued a statement saying that Acharya “is the better fit” of the two candidates vying for the SEARO director’s position. 

“[Acharya] possesses a very strong public health background and has extensive leadership experience in tackling global health issues,” the statement said. 

“He knows the public health and medical challenges of our region intimately, having worked for three decades to strengthen responses at local, national, regional and global levels, including in Nepal, Bangladesh and India, apart from his responsibilities at [the] WHO headquarters in Geneva.” 

So far there have not been any public statements of support for Wazed from public health experts in Bangladesh.  

Right now a strong anti-Hasina wave is sweeping Bangladesh, ahead of next general election all likely to be held in January. With the US closely monitoring the forthcoming election in Bangladesh many believe the ruling Awami League party will not be able to rig the elections this time and lose power. In such a situation many, long-known as pro-Awami League groups, are not speaking in support of Hasina, her party and family members now. 

However, AK Abdul Momen, Bangladesh’s foreign minister spoke in support of Wazed’s candidacy several days ago. 

In an interview with the Indian newspaper The Hindu, the minister demanded that Nepal withdraw its candidate from the contest for the WHO-SEARO post.

“[Nepal’s candidate] had been working in the WHO for the last 30 years and was in a decision-making position. So why have [health indices] not improved in the whole of the South East Asian region, even though he himself is a person of South Asian origin?” Momen asked while adding that Acharya should “step down” from the race for the WHO-SEARO post.

Wazed, who has held advisory positions at some Bangladesh government mental health bodies, rebuffed accusations that her nomination was “fueled by nepotism” because her mother is the prime minister. She said those critical of her nomination were overlooking her experience and achievements in the field of mental health. 

“They ignore that I have been an adviser to WHO’s DG on Mental Health & Autism, or that I have been a member of the WHO’s Expert Advisory Panel on mental health for almost a decade,” Wazed wrote in an Inter Press Service opinion piece earlier this month. 

“They do not mention that I am [the] chief adviser to Bangladesh’s National Mental Health Strategic Plan, or that I was a technical expert for Bangladesh’s National Mental Health Act of 2018,” she wrote.

Bangladesh’s nomination of Wazed has also come under scrutiny by several activists and public health experts. 

Bishow Parajuli, former U.N. resident coordinator and U.N. Development Program representative in Myanmar and Zimbabwe, said that Wazed has limited experience and qualifications to assume such a leadership position. 

“In a country with so many qualified and competent health professionals, the nomination of Ms. Wazed, and her use of the Prime Ministerial Office to engage with the various world leaders, also shows nepotism and the influence of her mother’s office in the process. …The selection must be made ‘on the basis of merits,’” he said in emailed comments. 

Paris-based Bangladeshi social activist and physician Pinaki Bhattacharya said Wazed has none of the required qualifications for the WHO-SEARO post.

“Hasina and her daughter are not aware that while being a descendant of the powerful can give one political advantage, the position of a professional international health leader requires the necessary education, skills and talent,” he told VOA. 

In recent weeks, Wazed accompanied her mother, Sheikh Hasina, on a high-profile diplomatic tour attending the U.N. General Assembly in New York and the summit in New Delhi of the 20 biggest economies, known as the G20. Wazed accompanied Prime Minister Hasina during her meetings with U.S. President Joe Biden, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Wazed said she is used to being held to different professional standards than men, and having her identity reduced to simply being “her mother’s daughter,” which is blatant sexism, Wazed said.

Wazed has not responded to a VOA email requesting direct comment on the nepotism issue.

Kent Buse is director of the Global Healthier Societies Program at The George Institute for Global Health at Imperial College London. Buse told VOA that the rules governing the selection of directors across all WHO regions need considerable reform to ensure public confidence in the merit-based nature of the organization. 

“This relates to improving transparency and delivering enhanced oversight of the election process. This should include better scrutiny of the candidate’s compliance with the existing codes of conduct governing the campaign processes.”

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