Two members of the UN Security Council, China and France, broke with tradition last week and nominated candidates for the position of WHO Director General. In the past Security Council members have not had citizens in that post. China’s candidate is Dr. Margaret Chan. She has a controversial history as health director in Hong Kong during the SARS and 1997 H5N1 outbreaks. Whether she is fairly or unfairly blamed is a matter of debate, but Karl Greenfeld’s book on SARS, The China Syndrome, does not indict her particularly, although it has harsh words for the Chinese leadership. Our concern about is two-fold: the championship of China, a government without sufficient respect for openness and the free flow of information; and her very decorous manner, which we think is not well suited for the kind of public head knocking an effective DG will have to do in this age of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases.
A decorous and gentile manner does not seem to burden the former French health minister, Bernard Kouchner. Kouchner is also the co-founder of Doctors Without Borders with a reputation for strong opinions, confidently expressed in a brash and aggressive manner. Here is what one of our European readers (Ana) said last week in the comment thread about the WHO DG race:
Kouchner is an astute politician, with a long career in both France (e.g. Minister of Health) and the EU. He is a good talker with a big mouth. Also a prolific author, a bit all over the board, somewhat like the ‘French philosophers’ such as B. H. Levy, people who surf on the TV and capitalise on whatever is going on, with indignation and platitudes.
He is the inventor of ‘humanitarian action’ – i.e. bombing and invading and killing for ‘humanitarian’ reasons (one pov). His pro-active stance garners him followers, those who think that ‘savages’ (les sauvages) should be forcibly stopped from running amok, and the dictator ‘du jour’ smashed.
He has strongly supported the US invasion of Iraq – “against dictatorships”
He embraced the break-up of Yugoslavia (and the bombing) – “for justice!” and served there post conflict until K. Annan replaced him (no idea why.)
He calls himself a social democrat …
I confess to have been horrified by this. He sounds like an asshole. And maybe he is. But on further reflection I began to wonder if this kind of attitude — to make an omelet you have to break some eggs — might not be just the thing for WHO at this point. We’ve had too many nutcases like this in foreign policy, but the WHO job is different. Maybe breaking a little China (no pun intended) is just what international health needs now. Still, I am uncomfortable about this. It is risky. Here’s more from an AP piece, yesterday:
“I was a free, flexible, inventive and an anarchist NGO,” Kouchner told reporters of his field work. “I am still acting with that kind of spirit.”
During his years in the field, Kouchner said he learned that a doctor “is not someone who sits on his (behind). He must be close to the people.”
Kouchner also said his 18 months as head of the UN administration in Kosovo – which ended in January 2001 – gave him a good understanding of the UN system.
The world faces huge medical problems and a growing gap between developed and developing countries, he said. “The big disease of the world is poverty. Fighting for good health means you’re fighting poverty.” (AP via Canadian Press)
Two other candidates, Dr. Shigeru Omi, director of WHO’s Western Pacific regional operation, and Mexican Health Minister Dr. Julio Frenk are among candidates considered to have a reasonable chance at the job. As usual we welcome information from readers who might have some insights or views into any of these candidates. If you send them to us by email, indicate how much can be shared and of course you can leave them in the comment thread to this post. Rants about WHO are strongly discouraged. This thread is not the place for them.
More can be found in our previous post, here.