Director-General's Office

Seventieth session of WHO Regional Committee for South-East Asia

WHO Director-General Dr Tedros' remarks

Republic of Maldives
6 September 2017

Honourable ministers, Regional Director Dr Singh, distinguished colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,

I am very proud to stand before you as the Director-General for the first time. During the course of my campaign, I had the privilege of meeting many of you, visiting your beautiful countries and hearing about your priorities for WHO.

This was the best possible preparation for my new job. I really learned a lot from you, because as you will hear me say, it is countries that are at the centre of WHO’s work.

Dr Singh, I have very much enjoyed getting to know you, and also your effective leadership. I’m glad to have a partner like you. I look forward to working with you very closely.

The campaign may be over, but our work together is just beginning. In the days and weeks ahead, I will continue to seek your support and ideas, and advice.

Dear colleagues, the region you represent accounts for more than one quarter of the world’s population. Almost 2 billion people look to you for their health. This is an enormous challenge, and at the same time, a wonderful opportunity.

Your discussions this week, and the decisions you make, must result in improvements to the health of those people. That is why we’re here.

Let me start by describing what for me was the most compelling moment since I began my work as Director-General. As you know, I visited Yemen at the end of July, during my first month in office, where I met a mother and her malnourished child in Sana’a. They had travelled for hours to reach the health centre. The mother was begging the medical staff to take care of her child. But when I looked at the mother, I could see that she was skin and bone. She could well die before her child. But she was focused only on her child, not herself. It was so sad to see.

It’s this moment of human suffering that was my moment of truth. That moment defines what WHO does and why WHO exists. It answers the question why, why WHO exists. We must not rest until that child and that mother are saved – until there are no mothers and children in that circumstance. Let us all work together to that noble end.

Now, I am sure many of you are wondering how WHO will change in the weeks and months and years ahead, so I would like to start by outlining how I view our work during this transition period.

In times of transition it’s vitally important that we continue our important ongoing work; we have to keep the ship afloat, what I call our day-to-day business. Every day, WHO staff around the world are working hard to improve health at the country level in thousands of ways, small and large. This must continue.

But I have also heard from you that there is a set of urgent priorities on which we can and must act immediately. So far, I have launched several “fast track initiatives” such as:

  • boosting our effectiveness in emergencies through daily briefings;
  • enhancing our governance by examining the work of the Executive Board and the Assembly to make it more efficient and strategic;
  • making WHO an even better place to work;
  • strengthening WHO’s communication capacities to mobilise political support for our global health agenda;
  • rethinking resource mobilisation with a shift in the way we mobilise resources;
  • pursuing greater value for money in the use of our resources;
  • and establishing a special initiative for climate change and health in small-island nations; and
  • planning for the polio transition, among others.

These are the immediate priorities. But we have also begun to lay the groundwork for the larger, transformative changes we need to make WHO an organization better able to meet future health challenges.

We started by listening. I initiated an “Ideas for Change” programme within WHO to stimulate fresh thinking and innovative ideas at all levels of the organization. We have harvested hundreds of great suggestions that we are now organizing into a strategic plan.

In that regard, we have started work on shaping our next General Programme of Work which will guide the strategy of WHO between 2019 and 2023.

You will be considering a draft concept note on the General Programme of Work on Friday. I urge you to think of this as a first draft of the ideas that will define our work in the years to come. It is the first draft of our contract with the people of the world. Its purpose is to stimulate your feedback, it is still during construction.

This concept note was first discussed at the AFRO regional committee meeting last week in Zimbabwe, and I was very encouraged by the feedback that we received. Health ministers were deeply engaged.

The most consistent feedback was to elaborate on how countries can progress toward universal health coverage by developing stronger and more resilient health systems, a robust health workforce including community health workers, and adequate domestic health financing. As what my sister Dr Poonam stressed in her report. Naturally, based on my experience in Ethiopia, I very much agree with these points.

Now it is your turn. This is your WHO, and its priorities are ultimately determined by you, the Member States. Over the coming days, weeks and months, we will need your feedback and ideas to shape the General Programme of Work; to shape the WHO you want.

Let me take a few moments to describe it to you.

Most importantly, the starting point of our General Programme of Work must be the Sustainable Development Goals. The SDGs are the lens through which we must see all our work. They are the priorities that you, the Member States, have agreed on, and must therefore be our priorities.

The SDGs feature one goal devoted explicitly to health, but health either contributes to, or benefits from, almost all the other goals. And some of the biggest health gains will come from improvements outside the health sector. It is therefore essential that WHO engages with partners in all relevant sectors to drive progress and that’s what my sister Poonam also said, the social political and economic determinants cannot be addressed unless all sectors are mobilised.

Within the context of the SDGs, the concept note for the General Programme of Work proposes the following mission for WHO: to keep the world safe, improve health and serve the vulnerable, like the mother and child that you heard about. Let me repeat that: keep the world safe, improve health and serve the vulnerable. Clarity of the mission is always important. This is how I see the mission of WHO. To achieve that mission, we propose five strategic priorities.

First, the world expects WHO to be able to prevent, detect and respond to epidemics and other health emergencies. I do not need to convince you for that. This year you have endured a large outbreak of dengue in Sri Lanka. And even as we speak, Bangladesh, Nepal and India are suffering from severe flooding, with about 16 million children in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. These are the moments when WHO must prove its worth.

Our work on health emergencies must also include finishing the job of wiping polio from the face of the earth, and fighting the spread of antimicrobial resistance. Both demand the same urgency as a sudden outbreak.

The second priority is linked closely to the first: to provide health services in emergencies and help to rebuild health systems in fragile, conflict and vulnerable states.

The third priority is helping countries strengthen health systems to progress towards universal health coverage. This includes access to essential medicines, which is a major driver of out-of-pocket health spending in this region. Health systems are the glue that binds together all the priorities in the General Programme of Work. Health is a human right, and that’s what we have been saying all day, universal health coverage is a political choice I urge countries to make.

The fourth priority is to drive progress towards the specific SDG health targets. I have already spoken about the SDGs as the frame within which we see all our work, but we also carry the responsibility of providing the practical tools and technical know-how to help countries advance towards the specific health targets.

We will focus our attention on four areas: improving the health of women, children and adolescents, including a commitment to tackling neonatal mortality; ending the epidemics of HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, hepatitis and neglected tropical diseases; preventing premature deaths from noncommunicable diseases, including mental health; and protecting against the health impacts of climate change and environmental problems. These are all issues that you will be discussing this week, and that Poonam has outlined in her report.

Finally, we provide the world’s governance platform for health. This is one of WHO’s key comparative advantages; only WHO has the authority and credibility to convene the numerous players in global health and to build consensus towards achieving shared goals. WHO can and must therefore play a vital role in orchestrating the increasingly complex global health architecture.

Now, we all know that strategies sometimes just sit on the shelf. So the draft concept note pays attention not only to what WHO will do but how we will do it (and of course why we should do it, the most important question.) It lists several big shifts I would like to highlight.

First, we will focus on outcomes and impact. It’s one thing to write an action plan; it’s another to put a plan into action. The end result of everything we do is not the publication of a report or a guideline, but the people whose health is protected or promoted by it. As the General Programme of Work takes shape, we will develop a scorecard with key indicators and measurable targets to ensure that we maintain our focus on projects and programmes that get results.

Second, we will set priorities. WHO cannot do everything; nor should we try. With your guidance, we will need to make tough decisions about where best to invest our finite resources to maximise impact. Again, the SDGs will be our guide.

Third, WHO will become more operational, especially in fragile, vulnerable and conflict areas. At the same time, we will continue to play our normative, standard-setting role -- and indeed we will strengthen those functions. But to do that, we need to better measure how our norms and standards are being used and implemented to improve health and save lives.

Fourth, we must put countries at the centre of WHO’s work. This seems obvious, but it bears repeating. Results don’t happen in Geneva or in regional offices; they happen in countries. Our role is to support you, our Member States, and to strengthen your health systems, achieve universal health coverage for your people and protect against epidemics in your countries. To do that, you must be in the driver’s seat.

Finally, or fifth, WHO will provide political leadership by advocating for health with world leaders. The importance of mobilising political commitment for health is clear to all of us. My first trip as DG was to Addis Ababa to the African Union Summit, and a few days later, I had the honour of addressing the G20 Summit in Hamburg and the opportunity to meet many global leaders. Both in the African Union and Hamburg I have seen heightened political commitment, and we made the case for health security and universal health coverage to some of the most powerful leaders at the G20, and I continue to meet others too.

WHO should not be shy about engaging with world leaders. Our cause is too important; the stakes are too high. Meaningful change happens when political leaders are engaged. WHO must therefore not be afraid to go beyond the technical to the political in pursuit of its mission.

Everywhere I go, I am heartened by the enthusiasm I see for health at the highest political level. I also see huge enthusiasm for WHO and the work that you all do. I know from my own experience that political will is the key ingredient for change. It is not the only ingredient, but without it, change is much harder to achieve. For a paradigm shift, we need political intervention.

My friends, we are here because we care about the health of the world’s people. They must be foremost in all our minds this week, and weeks, and months later, and should be our daily thinking.

The challenges we face are great. So must be our ambitions.

Let me return to the image of that mother and child I met in Yemen. That’s why I’m here. Many of you will have had your own moments of truth in public health, similar ones. In your work this week, keep those people in the front of your minds. They are the reason you are here.

Thank you for your hard work and dedication to our noble cause.

Please also remember to sign and ratify the protocol, I will not leave you alone! Thank you so much.