GENEVA — The World Health Organization announced a major restructuring plan to cut red tape and reduce longstanding tensions between its headquarters and six field offices.
The plan includes the creation of several new divisions and positions, reshuffling some deputy director-generals and regional directors and a greater focus on improving life for the world’s 1 billion poorest people.
It was announced in a speech by WHO’s Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, where he was accompanied by the six regional directors, but it had been previously discussed at WHO’s executive board meeting in January, after some member nations complained of being kept in the dark.
The tensions between WHO’s headquarters and field offices had been widely blamed as a major factor in the U.N. health agency’s failure to move fast enough to avert the deaths of more than 11,300 people in West Africa during an outbreak of Ebola virus that peaked in 2015 under Tedros’ predecessor, Dr. Margaret Chan.
Part of the reason that Tedros won election to lead WHO in 2017 was his promise to reform the organization. That year, it also faced controversy over its spending of $200 million a year on travel expenses while complaining of a shortfall in money to respond to global health crises.
Tedros and the regional directors said the changes will help its 194 member nations achieve WHO’s ‘triple billion’ targets over the next five years: 1 billion more people receiving universal health coverage; 1 billion more people protected from health emergencies; and 1 billion more people with better health and well-being.
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The reforms are the most wide-ranging in WHO’s nearly 71-year history and will strengthen its role as the world’s leading public health authority, the agency said in a statement. They were devised by staff and a global policy group that included Tedros and the regional directors.
Tensions between WHO’S Geneva headquarters and its regional offices have a long history. Since the organization was founded in 1948 — three years after the United Nations was created — the power struggles reflected post-World War II politics and economics.
Europeans were broke, but they still had African and Asian colonies. The United States was worried about Communist influence and the Soviet bloc, which withdrew from WHO between 1949 and 1955 and balked at capitalist intervention. It took until 1965 for an African to become the head of WHO’s Africa office.
Among the other changes that WHO now plans to make are the creation of a division for a chief scientist, a division for digital technologies and greater use of artificial intelligence.
“The changes we are announcing today are about so much more than new structures, they’re about changing the DNA of the organization to deliver a measurable impact in the lives of the people we serve,” said Tedros.
“Our vision remains the same as it was when we were founded in 1948: the highest attainable standard of health for all people,” he said. “But the world has changed, which is why we have articulated a new mission statement for what the world needs us to do now: to promote health, keep the world safe and serve the vulnerable.”