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Robert Mugabe as WHO goodwill ambassador – what went wrong?

At an international conference on non-communicable diseases, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organisation director general, recently named Zimbabwe president, Robert Mugabe, as a new WHO “goodwill ambassador” on non-communicable diseases (NCDs) for Africa.

Following international uproar the accolade was rescinded – but the debacle showed both misguided good intention and the importance of internal communication.

Ghebreyesus (or Tedros, as he likes to be known) was elected to lead the WHO in May.

He has a strong record of global health leadership, having previously served as chair of the board for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, the Roll Back Malaria Partnership, and co-chair of the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health.

From 2005-2012 he served as Ethiopia’s minister of health, winning plaudits for reforming the health system, improving outcomes, and widening access to care.

He has his critics – at the same time as he was reducing maternal mortality by 60% – his government was accused of covering up three cholera epidemics.

Ghebreyesus dismissed these “smears” and was supported by several independent public health leaders.

Nevertheless, he did serve in a senior position in a government that has been criticised for human rights abuses.

Tedros trained at the prestigious London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and completed his PhD in community health at Nottingham University.

He is generally well regarded, and is the first non-medic and the first African to hold the WHO’s top job.

You probably know about Mugabe already.

The 93-year-old has ruled Zimbabwe with an iron fist for 37 years.

The US imposed sanctions against him for his human rights abuses, and the UK’s monarch stripped him of an honorary knighthood in 2008 for violently repressing political opposition.

Amnesty International accuses his government of corruption, of ruining the economy, crushing democratic opposition, and of illegally detaining and torturing journalists and political activists.

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