Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the new WHO Director-General. Image: WHO/L. Cipiriani

It's Tedros!

GENEVA – Applause, cheers, Ethiopian flags, mobile phones held high and a crush of well-wishers greeted Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus Tuesday evening after his election as WHO’s next Director-General.

The vote by the 70th World Health Assembly made history: Tedros (who campaigned under his first name) will be the first African Director-General of WHO when he takes office July 1 for a 5-year term.

Long considered the front-runner in the race to be DG, Tedros outlasted his opponents David Nabarro and Sania Nishtar. While Tuesday’s vote was supposed to be secret, tidbits of news and rumors seeped from the Assembly Hall after voting began around 3 p.m: Nishtar was eliminated in the first round. In the second round, Tedros was said to have missed the two-thirds majority by a single vote. The third round obviously went to him.

Nishtar and Nabarro tweeted congratulations to Tedros after the vote, and Nabarro added, “I urge everyone to unite behind him & his vision.”

After a series of congratulatory speeches from representatives of the 6 WHO regions and home countries of each of the candidates, an elated Tedros addressed the Assembly. It had been a “rollercoaster year,” he said.

“I have never traveled like this in my life. I found our world to be so beautiful. Believe me: Not the geography, the rivers, the mountains—the beauty comes in the people. Beautiful people—everywhere you go. I believe that has really changed me in a big way,” Tedros said.

Lauding global diversity, Tedros promised to listen first and provide guidance, not dictates. He also emphasized his commitment to universal health coverage. “This will be my central priority. At present only half the world's people have access to health care without impoverishment,” he said.

Tedros also promised to make the WHO more “effective, efficient and accountable” in its efforts to help the world’s most vulnerable. “I will exercise this transparency to bring the change and reform we need,” he said.

Other highlights:

  • “It is not going to be easy, and in fact it will be difficult. We will need your voices, your commitment and your support. We need to work together to reach our common goals.”
  • “Together, we must ensure WHO has the resources to deliver on its mission. I commit that WHO will focus on measuring outcomes, and we will provide value for money.”
  • “The challenges we face are too big to be solved by any one sector alone. I will make sure WHO works in its areas of comparative advantage.”
  • “Together we will save and improve the lives of our most vulnerable brothers and sisters.”

Tedros likely enjoyed front-runner status throughout the campaign for two reasons: His deep government experience and strong support from African countries. He served as Ethiopia’s Minister of Health and, most recently, as its Minister of Foreign Affairs. He often cited his leadership in reforming Ethiopia’s resource-constrained health system as demonstration of his ability to achieve results. He led development of his country’s Health Extension Programme, which trained 38,000 health workers to dramatically expand access to health services.

Tedros’s election capped more than a year of campaigning for the post of the preeminent global health organization. A crowded field of candidates was winnowed to the 3 finalists by the WHO Executive Board in January. Though challenged by critics on his country’s human rights record while he was a government minister and by a late-breaking accusation of covering up cholera outbreaks while health minister, Tedros hewed to his central message that his experience—in life and leadership—made him the best candidate to lead WHO.

By late Tuesday evening, the stress of the long campaign melted away. Exhausted yet clearly savoring the moment, Tedros closed his acceptance speech in memorable fashion.

“I believe in us. I believe in us in making a difference. Through partnership and collaboration, anything is possible. Let’s get to work together for a healthier world,” he said.

Ed. Note: For more on Tedros's priorities for WHO, see GHN's Q&A with him from earlier in May.

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Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the new WHO Director-General. Image: WHO/L. Cipiriani