As they trade charges on nepotism and sexism, WHO contest between Bangladesh and Nepal gets heated


Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina’s daughter Saima Wazed (L), Shambhu Prasad Acharya (R). Photo: X(Twitter)/@drSaimaWazed; X(Twitter)/@acharyas1

Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina’s daughter Saima Wazed (L), Shambhu Prasad Acharya (R). Photo: X(Twitter)/@drSaimaWazed; X(Twitter)/@acharyas1

The contest between Bangladesh and Nepal for the regional head of the World Health Organization (WHO) has become increasingly heated, with allegations of “nepotism” and “sexism” being hurled at the candidates, and the election to be held in Delhi less than two weeks away. 

In an interview to The Hindu, Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister has demanded that Nepal, whose candidate Shambhu Acharya is a WHO veteran, withdraw its candidate for the post, in favour of Bangladesh’s candidate Saima Wazed, who is Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s daughter, defending her against the charges of “nepotism”. Ms. Wazed has also alleged that the opposition to her candidature denotes a “vicious strain of sexism” against women competing for “positions of power”. 

“[Nepal’s candidate] had been working in the WHO for the last 30 years and was in a decision-making position. So why have [health indices] not improved in the whole of the South East Asian region, even though he himself is a person of South Asian origin?” Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen asked, adding that the Nepali candidate should “step down” from the election race.

Mr. Acharya refuted the allegations of inefficacy, saying that in fact “the world has made substantial progress in health”. “The responsibility in achieving health for all is a shared responsibility as mentioned in the UNGA (United Nations General Assembly) SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) review,” he added.

When asked about the Bangladesh government’s call to withdraw, Nepal’s Health Minister said that Mr. Acharya is the “most eligible” candidate, pitting his experience in public health against Ms. Wazed’s, who is a psychologist, an activist on autism, and a government advisor.

“Dr. Shambhu Acharya has obtained advanced public health degree and possesses profound experience in public health working in different agencies and at different levels…The Regional Director position requires skills in human resource management, institutional management etc. among others which Dr. Acharya has been doing for more than two decades,” Nepal’s Health Minister Mohan Bahadur Basnet said in a written response.

As The Hindu had reported last month, both countries had forwarded their candidatures for Director of the WHO’s South East Asian Regional Office (SEARO) earlier this year. The post will go to the candidate receiving the majority of votes after a secret ballot by 11 regional members — Bangladesh, Bhutan, North Korea, India, Indonesia, the Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Timor-Leste.  After it became clear that there would be a contest during the upcoming SEARO meeting in Delhi from October 30-November2, an unusually high-profile campaign has followed with Ms. Wazed accompanying Ms. Hasina to a number of international conferences, including the BRICS summit in South Africa, the G-20 summit in Delhi, and the UNGA summit in New York, posting photographs with many world leaders, including U.S. President Joe Biden, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

After a number of articles in public health journals, including The Lancet and Health Policy Watch, criticised her for using Ms. Hasina’s clout in the campaign, Ms. Wazed hit back in a piece entitled ‘Setting the Record Straight’ last week, where she accused the articles against her of reflecting “damaging biases, that perpetuate harmful stigmas and stereotypes”, adding details of her own experience in advocating for awareness on autism and mental health.

The Ministry of External Affairs declined to comment on India’s choice in the subcontinental tussle. However, officials have said that the Bangladesh candidate has “the edge” given close ties, and Mr. Modi’s promise of support during his visit to Dhaka in 2021 that was mentioned in the India-Bangladesh joint statement at the time. However, the joint statement issued subsequently, during Ms. Hasina’s visit to Delhi in 2022, does not mention the WHO contest. India’s Poonam Khetrapal has been the WHO SEARO Director since 2014, and will hand over the post to the nominated candidate chosen at the Delhi meeting this month, following a ratification of the nomination in January 2024.

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