A Silent Majority: Civil Society & the Election of a New World Health Organization Director-General

This post was written by Loyce Pace, MPH, President and Executive Director of Global Health Council.

Final three candidates for WHO Director-General. Photos from WHO: http://www.who.int/dg/election/candidate-announcements/en/

Next week, Global Health Council (GHC) is bringing a delegation of nearly 70 of its members to attend the Seventieth World Health Assembly (WHA) in Geneva, Switzerland. As always, the agenda is packed with issues and events ranging from emergency preparedness to polio eradication. But this year’s meeting is especially exciting because country representatives (i.e. member states) will also vote for the next leader of the World Health Organization (WHO). Many of us have been tracking that process and are awaiting this individual’s final appointment.

Over the past several weeks GHC hosted all three candidates for WHO Director-General as an opportunity for members of civil society to engage in the dialogue. Although we don’t have a formal vote, implementing organizations, research institutions, philanthropists, corporations, and the like have an important role to play in advancing WHO’s objectives worldwide. We believe the candidates agree and saw it as positive that they each took the time to meet with our members.

Below are some key takeaways from those candidate discussions. GHC will co-host a live-streamed event from Geneva focused on civil society recommendations for the next WHO Director-General during WHA week. As a panelist, I plan on echoing what we’ve gathered from our meetings thus far and inviting our community to sign on to a set of core principles to which we could hold new leadership accountable for in his or her term.


Ultimately, WHO exists for and is accountable to its member states. However, partnerships are critical to its success. This includes dialogues and initiatives outside the public sector that could be useful in informing WHO guidelines or strategies and supporting programs or other engagements. That said, many civil society representatives have faced challenges partnering with WHO. Whether limited by their capacity to navigate what can be a confusing bureaucracy or a constant need to reiterate their primary agenda and credibility, non-state actors – as civil society is referenced – and staff alike recognize a need to improve the process by which they work with each other. In recent years, WHO members have stepped in to develop new partnership protocols, although a number of barriers and unanswered questions remain. In the end, we need a clear engagement framework that allows for a range of stakeholders and collaboration across those groups in a way that meets the objective of all parties to drive global health and wellbeing, while also identifying conflict on all sides and protecting against undue influence.


A major concern for multiple stakeholders (both public and private) is the level of resources available for WHO to fulfill its mandate. The agency increasingly has less funding and fewer resources to carry out its core scope of work, with more funds being earmarked for discrete projects. Engaging with civil society has the potential to unlock additional resources for WHO. For example, major donors like Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have become critical financial supporters over the years. Civil society organizations also play a key role in promoting the work of WHO to their governments so that member states understand the value of their contributions that support agency activities. And civil society has the capacity to help member states hold WHO accountable for the funds it receives. Other UN agencies have seen success with this model.


How WHO is perceived is just as important as whether it succeeds. With the challenges faced by the agency in recent years, public confidence has waned significantly. While some perceptions might not be entirely warranted, the reality is many people at baseline don’t understand the core function of WHO and, secondly, cannot speak to the effectiveness of its policies and programs. The voice of civil society is absolutely essential to translating both the benefits and challenges of WHO. However, to do so, we must be seen and treated as valuable allies in the organization’s mission. Civil society also has the best access to the global citizens that WHO ultimately serves. So, WHO would do well to maintain strong connections to non-state actors that can advise them on how to be most relevant and beneficial to the global masses.

By harnessing the power of civil society and joining forces across sectors, WHO and its member states stand a better chance at having a measurable impact on communities and saving lives worldwide. We look forward to working with the new WHO Director-General to better engage us as trusted champions. The issues we face worldwide are too vast to be tackled by a single agency or sector. Only by being welcoming and inclusive will we all be successful.