Intended for healthcare professionals


How to choose the world’s top health diplomat

BMJ 2016; 355 doi: (Published 28 October 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;355:i5746
  1. Ilona Kickbusch, director1,
  2. Ngaire Woods, dean2,
  3. Peter Piot, director3,
  4. Kamran Abbasi, executive editor4
  1. 1Global Health Centre, Graduate Institute for International and Development Studies, Geneva, Switzerland
  2. 2Blavatnik School of Government and Director of the Global Economic Governance Programme, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
  3. 3London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London, UK
  4. 4The BMJ, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to: Ilona.Kickbusch{at}
  • Accepted 24 October 2016

Ilona Kickbusch and colleagues discuss the qualities required for the next director general of the World Health Organization

In May 2017 a new director general of the World Health Organization will be elected—one of the world’s most critical appointments. The process is long and highly political. In January 2017 the executive board of WHO will shortlist a maximum of three candidates from the field of six (table 1), and the new director general will be elected from the shortlist by all 194 member states at the World Health Assembly in May 2017.

View this table:
Table 1

Candidates for WHO director general1

What does the job of director general involve?

WHO has outlined selection criteria (box 1), but the position is ultimately a political one. Technical excellence in public health is only part of the requirement, although it does provide additional credibility and insight for decision making.

Box 1: Job criteria

Under resolution WHA65.152 the candidates nominated by the board should fulfil the following criteria, while underscoring the paramount importance of professional qualifications and integrity and the need to pay due regard to equitable geographical representation, as well as gender balance:

  • A strong technical background in a health field, including experience in public health

  • Exposure to, and extensive experience in, international health

  • Demonstrable leadership skills and experience

  • Excellent communication and advocacy skills

  • Demonstrable competence in organisational management

  • Sensitivity to cultural, social, and political differences

  • Strong commitment to the mission and objectives of WHO

  • Good health conditions required of all staff members of the organisation

  • Sufficient skill in at least one of the official working languages of the Executive Board and the Health Assembly

It is a powerful role—the director general can declare a public health emergency of international concern. They are in regular contact with the UN secretary general, heads of state, political leaders, development banks, ministers of health, and major funders. Using the …

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