WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has sought to transform WHO to maximize its impact. Image: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

Inside the Mind of Tedros: A Q&A with WHO’s Director-General

Since taking charge of WHO in July 2017, Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has sought to transform the organization. Tedros (as he likes to be known) has focused WHO on health equity, confronting new threats, and emergency preparedness and response. David Peters, chair of International Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, is a longtime health systems researcher and a WHO adviser. He knows well the challenges Tedros faces. In this first of a 2-part series, Peters probes Tedros in an email interview on the biggest challenges: his signature initiative—universal health coverage, health equity and WHO’s work with nonstate actors. (Read part 2 of the interview here.)

Ed. Note: This is the first of a series of articles on public health leadership this month in Global Health NOW.


You’ve been clear about your priorities for WHO: addressing health equity, taking on new threats to human health and renewing WHO’s focus on emergency preparation and response. What have been the biggest challenges in pursuing these priorities? Any surprises?

There are several major organizational shifts I believe WHO needs to make to truly fulfil its mission and mandate. The first is that we must become much more focused on outcomes rather than simply outputs. WHO is known for the quality of its normative work, but there’s little value in publishing a guideline if nobody uses it. We need a much greater emphasis on making sure our world-class technical work is used at country level, and a much greater focus on measuring the impact of that work.

The second major shift flows from the first. If our mission is to ensure a measurable impact in health in countries, we must make sure that our 150 country offices have the resources they need to make a difference. In the past, WHO has been too Geneva-centric; we’re seeking to reshape WHO’s “operating model” to make sure everything we do supports what our country offices need to deliver impact.

Third, the global health architecture is very different now from what it was when WHO was founded 70 years ago, with many more actors with skills, experience, knowledge, networks and resources that WHO lacks. If we see this as a threat, it leads to territorialism and more silos. But if we see it as an opportunity, we can have a much greater impact than ever before. They key is to engage with partners proactively, harness everyone’s collective strength.

Finally, there’s little point in setting ambitious goals if they’re not matched by ambitious investments. We will soon be releasing our investment case, which describes what a fully funded WHO could achieve. But it’s not just the quantity of funding that matters; it’s the quality. One of the biggest threats to WHO’s long-term success is the earmarking of funds. So, we’re urging our Member States to support us with high-quality, flexible funding to enable to us make the biggest impact possible.

You’ve made universal health coverage the central objective for WHO. Most people see UHC focusing on expanding access to effective health care, yet many new health concerns, such as climate change, food insecurity, and social and structural determinants of health go beyond traditional clinical care. What role should WHO have in getting the right balance between individual clinical care and public goods or collective action in health?

There’s an important distinction between universal health care and universal health coverage. The former is often used to refer to clinical services delivered by health workers in health facilities. The latter includes clinical services but is much broader: It also includes public goods that address the social, economic, occupational and environmental determinants of health, such as clean water and sanitation, road safety, efforts to reduce air pollution and so on.

Many of these are determined by policies that lie outside the health sector, so it’s vital that those of us in the health sector work across sectors to achieve health goals, such as working with the energy sector to improve reduce air pollution and climate change. In the same way, other sectors need to work with the health sector to achieve their own goals.

WHO’s 5-year strategic plan, called the General Programme of Work, emphasizes our role in providing global public goods by enabling ministries of health to engage more effectively in inter-sectoral work. In practical terms, that means we engage high-level political advocacy, we get our hands dirty in country-level technical work, and we also monitor trends and provide information about the cost of inaction, enabling governments to adjust policies and creating citizen demand for healthier environments. All this is supported by the evidence-based guidance and tools that ensure that public health goods for health are managed and protected efficiently.

Our understanding of health equity and universal health coverage has changed a lot since [the 1978 declaration at] Alma Ata. A lot of work being done on health equity is done in silos – focusing on delivering services in specific programs and not a more holistic or person-centered view of people’s health needs across the lifecycle. The research is also often disconnected to what governments are doing. What’s the role of WHO in bridging knowledge and practice gaps around equitable access to effective coverage?

Knowledge management and knowledge dissemination are part of WHO’s core business. A lot of research around the world is done by individual institutions with a focus on specific diseases; WHO has a critical role in shaping the research agenda (often raising issues that are underrepresented in traditional research financing), assessing knowledge, and translating and disseminating that knowledge in a way that governments can use to develop and implement policies. We also provide direct technical assistance to governments, translating that body of evidence to make a difference on the ground.

Health equity research plays a fundamental role in documenting health inequities and supporting countries to measure and improve health equity. WHO’s role is to support health equity research that is relevant to governments’ priorities for health policy and health system strengthening.

This work is led by the Alliance for Health Policy and Systems Research, an international partnership hosted by WHO. It involves an innovative model of research led directly by policymakers and embedded in real-world policy and practice. Equity is one of the key research areas for the Alliance. This new approach has helped to close gaps in immunization coverage and foster equitable access to reproductive health services in various low- and middle-income countries.

By promoting more relevant and demand-driven research, embedding health equity research has the potential to significantly improve health policymaking and inter-sectoral collaboration, with a view of progressing towards UHC and the Sustainable Development Goals.

WHO was built on managing nation-state interests in health and wasn’t particularly designed to engage with civil society or the corporate and NGO sectors. Yet they are increasingly prominent actors affecting the public’s health. Do you see any changes for WHO in working with non-government actors?

It’s true that leveraging the strengths of civil society, the private sector, philanthropic foundations and academic institutions is essential for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Governments, public institutions, the UN system and multilateral agencies simply don’t have all the needed skills, knowledge, expertise or resources.

In fact, we are engaging even more proactively with civil society organizations and have invited them to suggest ideas on how we can work together more strategically and effectively. We’ve also established civil society working groups for tuberculosis and noncommunicable diseases in preparation for the high-level meetings on those two subjects at the United Nations General Assembly this year. We’ve met several times and those groups are working very well.

But it’s not right to say that WHO wasn’t designed to engage with non-state actors. WHO’s constitution, written in 1948, explicitly commits WHO to working with “any organization, international or national, governmental or non-governmental” to fulfil its mission and mandate.

The global health landscape has become more complex, with many more players involved in global health governance. To enable WHO to navigate that landscape, capitalizing on its strengths while minimizing its risks, our Member States led an intensive negotiation process that resulted in the adoption in 2016 of the Framework of Engagement with Non-State Actors, or FENSA. This unique instrument establishes the “rules of engagement”, and enables WHO to work with non-state actors while managing potential conflicts of interest, reputational risks and undue influence.

As part of our efforts to implement FENSA, we’ve developed a handbook to help non-state actors interact with WHO and a guide for staff to help them understand and apply the rules. We also maintain a register of non-state actors to ensure transparency and accountability.

Ed. Note: The interview continues here

This is the first installment of a Global Health NOW series on public health leadership.

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WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has sought to transform WHO to maximize its impact. Image: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images