PR disaster for WHO as Director-General rescinds Mugabe Goodwill Ambassador appointment

The World Health Organization has revoked the appointment of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe as a goodwill ambassador following a widespread outcry.

The WHO’s director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who previously made the appointment at a high-level meeting on non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in Uruguay on Wednesday, said in a statement that he had listened to those expressing concerns.

The Statement was as follows: “Over the last few days, I have reflected on my appointment of H.E. President Robert Mugabe as WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Noncommunicable Diseases in Africa. As a result I have decided to rescind the appointment.

I have listened carefully to all who have expressed their concerns, and heard the different issues that they have raised. I have also consulted with the Government of Zimbabwe and we have concluded that this decision is in the best interests of the World Health Organization.

It is my aim to build a worldwide movement for global health. This movement must work for everyone and include everyone.

For me, what is important is to build political leadership and create unity around bringing health to all, based on WHO’s core values.

I remain firmly committed to working with all countries and their leaders to ensure that every one has access to the health care they need.

We must build bridges that bring us together and help us move forward in our quest to achieve universal health coverage.

I thank everyone who has voiced their concerns and shared their thoughts. I depend on constructive debate to help and inform the work I have been elected to do.”

During the first 20 years of his 37-year rule, Mr Mugabe widely expanded health care, however over the past 17 years the system has badly been affected by the collapse of the Zimbabwean economy since 2000. Staff often go without pay, medicines are in short supply, and Mr Mugabe, who has outlived the average life expectancy in his country by three decades, shows his faith in his own health care system by travelling abroad for medical treatment.

PR Disaster

This is a PR disaster for the WHO. Tedros was elected as the first African head of the WHO in May, and Mugabe was head of the African Union (AU) when the bloc endorsed Tedros

Several former and current WHO staff said privately they were appalled at the “poor judgement” and “miscalculation” by Tedros. At 93, Robert Mugabe is one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders and has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980. Along with his inner circle, he has been under US sanctions since the early 2000s over human rights abuses and the erosion of democratic institutions. President Barack Obama extended sanctions for another year before leaving office in January.

The US ambassador to the United Nations during Barack Obama’s administration, Samantha Power, tweeted:

Zimbabwe’s main opposition MDC party had called the appointment “laughable” and “an insult”.

At a time when the WHO seeks to be reinventing itself it could do without this PR disaster, but questions should be asked about why Tedros thought for a second this was a good idea. Mugabe’s human rights issue’s should surely make him an unacceptable choice for any such role.



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