A WHO Goodwill Ambassador is typically a celebrity that uses their fame and talent to advocate for matters relating to health across the globe. While former ambassadors have been carrying out their duties, mostly unnoticed, the recent appointment of Robert Mugabe caused public uproar. The President of Zimbabwe, aged 93, was appointed as the WHO Goodwill Ambassador by Tedros Adyhanom Ghebreyesus, the current head of the World Health Organization. This appointment was made on Wednesday, the 18th of October during a meeting on communicable diseases in Uruguay.
The general public and governments the world over, however, were not impressed. The WHO’s Director-General faced pressure that has eventually led him to reverse his decision concerning the appointment. Starting in his backyard, members of the WHO staff were appalled by this decision, terming it a miscalculation and poor judgment at best. The Zimbabwean opposition was quick to point out the president’s troubling human rights record and how his tenure has affected the economy of Zimbabwe.
The West is not particularly fond of Mugabe and they, much like Zimbabwe’s opposition, blame him for the current crisis in Zimbabwe including human rights abuses during his 37-year tenure as Prime Minister and President. Britain registered the appointment as a surprise and disappointment. The US, which has imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe, shared the same sentiments. Other critics raised concerns regarding how the president could travel abroad due to his fragile health that cannot be tended to in Zimbabwe as a result of the declining health care system.
Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN during the Obama administration, posted in a tweet: “The only person whose health 93-yo Mugabe has looked out for in his 37-year reign is his own.” Other organizations including Action Against Smoking and Cancer Research UK and World Health Federation also expressed their displeasure in relation to Mugabe’s human rights violation accusations.
The appointment of Tedros to lead WHO occurred when he was the Health and Foreign Minister of Ethiopia. Mugabe was the head of the African Union at the time, and the bloc endorsed Tedros over the other leaders without any clear criteria. With all this criticism, the appointment was not expected to last, and on October 22, Tedros reported that he had listened carefully to all those who expressed their views and reconsidered the appointment. He said he had consulted with the Zimbabwean government and seen it best to revoke the decision. The appointment was seen as overriding the work of WHO in the global health sector which is already grappling with controversies such as how it tackled the 2014-2015 Ebola epidemic that hit West Africa.