The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) has said he is “rethinking” his decision to name Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe a goodwill ambassador in the face of growing criticism over the move.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the UN health agency, had this week asked Zimbabwe’s 93-year-old leader to serve in the role to help tackle non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like heart attacks, strokes and asthma across Africa.
The decision triggered confusion and anger among key WHO member states and opposition figures in Zimbabwe who noted that the country’s healthcare system, like many of its public services, has been rife with problems under Mugabe’s decades-long leadership.
“I’m listening. I hear your concerns. Rethinking the approach in light of WHO values. I will issue a statement as soon as possible”, Tedros, a former Ethiopian health minister, said on Twitter.
I’m listening. I hear your concerns. Rethinking the approach in light of WHO values. I will issue a statement as soon as possible
— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (@DrTedros) October 21, 2017
Tedros took charge of WHO earlier this year, becoming the first African to lead the UN agency.
In announcing Mugabe’s appointment in Uruguay this week, Tedros had praised Zimbabwe as “a country that places universal health coverage and health promotion at the centre of its policies to provide healthcare to all.”
Zimbabwe’s government has not commented on Mugabe’s appointment, but a state-run Zimbabwe Herald newspaper headline called it a “new feather” in the president’s cap.
However, Tendai Biti, a former finance minister in Zimbabwe, said the move showed the WHO did not understand the country’s political reality.
“It defies logic,” he told dpa news agency.
Biti said there is one doctor for every 100,000 patients in the country, as health workers leave the country in search of better opportunities.
He added that one of the country’s largest hospitals had no running water and patients are asked to bring in their own bucket of water.
“We can not take these institutions seriously,” said Obert Gutu, spokesman for the main opposition the Movement for Democratic Change.
“The whole world knows what Mugabe has done on the health delivery of this once great country.”
Mugabe has led Zimbabwe since independence in 1980. His repeated visits to Singapore have heightened concerns over his health, even as he pursues re-election next year.
UN agencies often name high-profile personalities as goodwill ambassadors to draw attention to their work.
Outside Zimbabwe, many WHO member states and rights groups also criticised Mugabe’s appointment.
Britain called the decision “surprising and disappointing, particularly in light of the current US and EU sanctions against him”.
“We have registered our concerns with WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus,” a foreign office spokesperson said in an email.
Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described the decision as “absolutely unacceptable”.
“When I heard of Robert Mugabe’s appointment … quite frankly, I thought it was a bad April Fool’s joke,” he told reporters.
“Mugabe doesn’t trust Zimbabwe health care he destroyed (he travels abroad) but @WHO’s Tedros names him ambassador”, the head of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, said in a tweet.
— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) October 21, 2017
WHO had earlier on Saturday pointed to Zimbabwe’s record on tobacco, NCDs and Tedros’ desire to engage senior politicians as justifications for the Mugabe honour.
“Dr Tedros has frequently talked of his determination to build a global movement to promote high-level political leadership for health,” spokesman Christian Lindmeier said in an email.
“Zimbabwe has ratified the WHO FCTC (Framework Convention on Tobacco Control) in 2014 and the government has launched a levy fund for NCDs to generate revenues for health promotion, including NCD prevention and control,” he added.