The election of the head of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Southeast Asia Regional Office (SEARO) has sparked controversy as 60 public health experts demand more transparency in the process. Saima Wazed, daughter of Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, is one of the contenders for the post, along with Shambhu Prasad Acharya, a public health specialist from Nepal.
India, one of the 11 member states of SEARO, has already indicated its support for Sheikh Hasina’s daughter, a move that experts criticize as prioritizing geopolitics over public health. Wazed was recently seen alongside her mother during the G20 Summit in New Delhi, and Bangladesh has expressed gratitude to India for its support.
Critics argue that Wazed lacks the necessary technical, administrative, and public health experience to head the office. They believe she was nominated by Bangladesh solely because she is the prime minister’s daughter. This situation is unique since it is rare for the daughter of a serving prime minister to contest to become the head of the regional WHO office.
Nepal’s candidate, Acharya, holds a PhD in public health, health policy, and financing from the University of North Carolina and has served the WHO for three decades in various roles. On the other hand, Wazed has an MSc degree in clinical psychology from Barry University in the United States. She has been a member of the WHO’s expert advisory panel on mental health for over nine years and an adviser to the WHO’s director-general on mental health and autism for four years, according to her CV.
While Acharya seems more qualified from a public health perspective, signatories argue that it is not an equal battle because Wazed is the daughter of a prime minister. However, there is also surprise at the “coordinated campaign” against Wazed and support for her candidacy.
The Southeast Asia Region of the WHO faces significant public health challenges, and the head of the regional office will have much to deal with. The countries in this region bear the highest burden of some of the most challenging diseases for the WHO to address.
The controversy surrounding the election highlights the importance of transparency and fairness in the process. The WHO must prioritize selecting a candidate who can effectively address the complex public health problems faced by the Southeast Asia Region. The decision should be based on qualifications, expertise, and the ability to promote and protect public health in the region, rather than political considerations. Only by doing so can the WHO maintain its credibility and fulfill its mission to improve global health.