Saima Wazed Elected WHO South-East Asia Regional Director Despite Corruption Claims
Saima Wazed (in black), along with her mother Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, during an official visit to the United States to meet US President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden. Wazed’s election as WHO-SEARO’s regional director has been dogged by allegations of nepotism, and her mother’s government is said to have relentlessly lobbied for her win.

Amidst a flurry of allegations of nepotism and political corruption, Saima Wazed, daughter of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, has emerged victorious in the race for the World Health Organization’s South-East Asia (WHO-SEARO) regional director.

Wazed’s limited international public health experience and expertise, confined to the narrow field of autism, have raised concerns among experts about her ability to effectively lead the region’s health agenda.

“It is a bit of an experiment to see if a non-public health qualified person with zero public health experience can actually provide the degree of inspiration that is needed to bring about significant shifts or strengthening public health policy,” Mukesh Kapila, a public health expert with experience working in 120 countries, told Health Policy Watch.

While acknowledging the possibility of improvements in the management and internal workings of WHO regional and country offices under Wazed’s leadership, Kapila remains sceptical.

“Can she improve the relevance, effectiveness and efficiency of the WHO in the region? Time will tell,” said Kapila.

Wazed’s dual Canadian citizenship has also drawn scrutiny, raising questions about potential conflicts of interest and her commitment to public health in Bangladesh and the wider South-East Asia region.

Politics wins over experience in WHO-SEARO backrooms 

Wazed’s victory is being attributed to a relentless campaign by her mother’s government, which mobilized its diplomatic network to secure her election. She will now be responsible for providing independent and impartial advice to Bangladesh from WHO.

“The fact [is] that professionals and staff, from my own conversations with them in SEARO, have no confidence in her,” said Kapila. “She’ll be trying her very best not to ruffle [them] too much as she will be trying to win them over. And that means she is unlikely to be much of a change agent.”

Her election opponent Shambhu Prasad Acharya is a veteran WHO official with three decades of experience with the UN health body. Acharya, who received immense support from Nepal’s civil society, was seen as a more qualified candidate but lacked support from other countries in the region.

Kapila attributed Acharya’s loss to Nepal’s position as a poor country that was unable to strike backroom deals to push its candidate, emphasizing that such tactics should not be necessary in the selection of WHO officials.

Of the 11 countries in the region, 10 were eligible to vote in a secret ballot, with Myanmar being disenfranchised because of the sanctions imposed on it. The Bangladesh High Commission shared that Wazed had received 8 out of the 10 votes.

Wazed will take charge in February next year and will be succeeding India’s Poonam Khetrapal Singh who has held the post for a decade now.

Outgoing WHO-SEARO Regional Director Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh announced earlier this month that Bangladesh has become the world’s first country to eliminate visceral leishmaniasis.

The selection process of WHO’s regional offices has been in the news for a while now. In September, the medical journal The Lancet carried an editorial about the concerns about the candidate selection, and opacity of the election process. Wazed’s candidacy was also questioned on similar grounds.

Earlier this year WHO fired the regional director for the Western Pacific region on an enquiry into allegations of misconduct, as HPW reported in March this year.

Despite a quarter of the world’s population living in the SEARO region and the high number of COVID-19 deaths recorded during the pandemic, the SEARO office was hesitant to hold press conferences or provide regular updates on the situation. This contrasted with other WHO regional offices that were more proactive in communicating with the public.

Indian journalists faced difficulties in accessing accurate information about the country’s COVID-19 death toll at the height of the pandemic. The Indian government reportedly lobbied the WHO against releasing its excess deaths report, which would have revealed the country’s true death toll. The SEARO office remained largely silent on this matter, despite the significant public health implications.

Shenanigans in WHO South-East Asia as Politician’s Daughter Contests Regional Director Election

The region also has exceedingly high air pollution levels, an issue that WHO could get involved with more actively. Severe air pollution has once again engulfed Delhi, affecting health in the region. This year, cities like Mumbai with relatively clean air have also been hit hard.

While Singh was hesitant to take a stronger stand on the issue with the respective governments, Wazed is likely to follow suit, given how instrumental the Indian government’s support has been for her victory, experts HPW spoke to said.

“It was a victory not for global health or professionalism,” said Kapila. “It was a victory for state politics, and interstate politics and money and basically Bangladesh’s clout to get votes. But then I suppose that is politics for you.”

Experts also said that given Hasina’s government is in trouble in Bangladesh and Wazed is aware of her unpopularity within the WHO, she might not want to ruffle any feathers and is unlikely to take any strong policy stand.

Image Credits: X, WHO.

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