Mugabe’s not the only authoritarian leader praised by the WHO
President Robert Mugabe may be one of the world’s longest-serving leaders, ruling over Zimbabwe for nearly four decades, but his time as a goodwill ambassador for the World Health Organisation (WHO) lasted just three days. After the appointment was heavily criticised by the British and Canadian governments, human-rights NGOs and Zimbabwean opposition parties, the WHO’s director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, quickly rescinded the offer.
But there is nothing unusual about the WHO lavishing praise on authoritarian leaders. Margaret Chan, former WHO director general, lauded the impoverished, isolated autocracy of North Korea for exhibiting ‘no signs of obesity’. North Korea’s healthcare system was in good order, she continued, because the country was able to retain doctors at a level ‘most other developing countries would envy’. Chan must have ignored the fact that North Korea is in a unique position to keep its doctors from seeking higher wages in the West – attempting to escape from the repressive state is punishable by forced labour or death.
What about the Philippines’ president, Rodrigo Duterte, best known for his open enthusiasm for extrajudicial executions of drug users? The WHO once congratulated him on his executive order banning smoking in all public places – both indoors and outdoors – and thus creating some of the most restrictive anti-smoking laws in the region. It seems that as long as the Philippines’ population isn’t being killed by cigarette smoke, the WHO is happy.
Indeed, its crusade against cigarettes and other vices seems to take precedence over any other health concern. For instance, in 2014, the WHO had to beg for extra cash to deal with the emerging ebola crisis in West Africa. But when the epidemic began, it was busy running a £1million tobacco conference, hosted by none other than Vladimir Putin. While delegates denounced the evils of e-cigarettes, and Putin was praised for his ‘comprehensive’ approach to tobacco, the ebola epidemic was spiralling out of control.
The Mugabe appointment was just the most absurd expression of the WHO’s obsession with lifestyle policing. Mugabe was selected as goodwill ambassador for his interest in so-called non-communicable diseases (NCDs). These are preventable through reducing risky behaviour like tobacco use, unhealthy diet, physical inactivity and alcohol consumption, according to a WHO factsheet.
But under Mugabe’s leadership, the Zimbabwean healthcare system has collapsed. In fact, he has outlived the country’s average life expectancy by three decades – he travels abroad for his healthcare needs. The system he presides over – which was, naturally, applauded by the WHO – is unable to even treat NCDs. Clearly, the WHO prefers leaders who clamp down on their citizens than those who actually look out for them. (Zimbabwe is one of the few African countries to have a nationwide smoking ban and is currently legislating to ban the sale of alcohol on weekdays.)
While widespread outrage over Mugabe’s appointment is welcome, bigger questions about the WHO’s purpose need to be asked. It would do better to help the developing world treat infectious diseases, rather than praising its more illiberal leaders.