India to choose between Bangladesh and Nepal candidates for WHO regional chief

Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina’s daughter is contesting against Nepali public health veteran

October 31, 2023 10:24 pm | Updated November 01, 2023 09:43 am IST - NEW DELHI

Saima Wazed and Shambhu Acharya together at the meet in Delhi.

Saima Wazed and Shambhu Acharya together at the meet in Delhi. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangment

India, along with other South Asian and South East Asian countries, will choose between candidates from Bangladesh and Nepal for the post of Regional Director of the World Health Organization (WHO), bringing a bitterly fought campaign to an end.

The vote will take place on November 1, the third day of the 76th session of the WHO Regional Committee for South-East Asia being hosted by Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya in Delhi.

The nominees are Saima Wazed, daughter of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, and Shambhu Prasad Acharya, public health veteran from Nepal and WHO senior official. The candidates will need six votes to win the contest. Ten of the 11 member countries — Bangladesh, Bhutan, DPR (North) Korea, India, Indonesia, Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Timor-Leste — will take part in the vote. The countries are being mostly represented by their Health Ministers.

Myanmar, where the regime is under sanctions for the coup in 2020, has not sent a delegation to the meeting, while North Korea is being represented by its Ambassador to India.

While the campaign for the coveted position saw a heated campaign between India’s two neighbours, including officials levelling charges of “nepotism” and “sexism” at each other, the  candidates themselves shared a “selfie” photograph together on social media at the start of the WHO session.

Ahead of the election, both sides expressed confidence that they had the support of the majority of countries. As the campaign with the SEARO countries came to a close, in which Nepali officials urged countries to vote for the “more qualified” Mr. Acharya, Bangladesh officials suggested that it was “sexist” not to consider Ms. Wazed simply due to her lineage. 

The External Affairs Ministry has declined to comment on the vote, but officials pointed to a 2021 India-Bangladesh joint statement where India assured its support in the election this year.

Given Bangladesh’s high-pitched campaign, where Ms. Hasina herself introduced Ms. Wazed to various leaders on visits to Delhi, New York and other cities, as well as Bangladesh’s considerable size and heft in the region, its candidate is believed to have the “edge”, officials have suggested. 

On Tuesday, Mr. Acharya said he remained confident of a win, citing support from several health professionals he has worked with over the course of his career in public health for more than 30 years.

“I am very confident of winning given my background and overwhelming support I have been receiving from all over the world. I do hope member states will consider views of the people before casting their votes,” he told The Hindu.

On the eve of the WHO session, a group of 15 regional health experts, including Swarup Sarkar, former Director of WHO SEARO; Kul Chandra Gautam, former Assistant Secretary-General of United Nations and Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF; and K. Sujatha Rao, former Indian Health Secretary, wrote an open letter to the SEARO countries, asking them to ignore “narrow political  maneuvering” and “go beyond bilateral promises and political interests” while choosing the Regional Director for the region that represents a quarter of the global population.

Ms. Wazed, a clinical psychologist who practised in the U.S., has had an advisory role to the WHO and the Bangladesh government on mental health for some years, and has claimed the support of several mental health agencies and autism groups.

Responding to another group of experts who had questioned her qualifications in the Lancet journal, Ms. Wazed wrote in an article in October, titled “Setting the Record Straight”, that her experience in the field was deliberately being “ignored”. “The overt and intentional erasure of my experience, and the attendant reduction of me to being simply my mother’s daughter, is sexism and must be called out as such,” she added.

The nominee chosen on Wednesday morning will be forwarded to the WHO executive session, and the new Regional Director will take over from the present Director Poonam Khetrapal Singh on February 1, 2024.

(With inputs from Bindu Shajan Perappadan)

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