Controversy clouds bid by Bangladesh PM’s daughter for coveted WHO job

BenarNews staff
Controversy clouds bid by Bangladesh PM’s daughter for coveted WHO job Saima Wazed (center, left) talks to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (center, right) on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in New Delhi, as her mother, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (left), looks on, Sept. 7, 2023.
Saima Wazed/LinkedIn

August was a busy month of globe trotting for Saima Wazed, the Bangladesh prime minister’s daughter and one of two candidates vying for a plum job with the U.N.’s World Health Organization.  

Wazed joined her mother, Sheikh Hasina, during the BRICS Summit at Johannesburg and at the G20 Summit in New Delhi, where the PM personally introduced her to three heavyweights on the world stage: President Xi Jinping of China, U.S. President Joe Biden, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.  

Next week, Wazed will go up against a Nepalese rival in a WHO election to determine who will serve as the next head of the agency’s Southeast Asia office, although Bangladesh’s bid to push her candidacy for the post has come under fire.

Critics, including global health experts, allege she is underqualified and has an unfair edge because of her mother’s position and clout in the international arena.   

“Often, U.N. agencies are criticized for not delivering results, and this is what happens,” said Bishow Parajuli, a former United Nations bureaucrat from Nepal who served as the world body’s highest-ranking representative to three nations. “When you have lobbying for incompetent, ill-experienced people, then you don’t get the results, ultimately.”

Wazed, a school psychologist known for her advocacy on autism awareness, is running against Nepal’s Shambhu Acharya, a veteran public health expert, to run the WHO regional branch. Based in New Delhi, the Southeast Asia office covers a quarter of the world’s population in 11 countries in South and Southeast Asia, and operates with a yearly budget of U.S. $500 million.

In July, 60 global public health experts penned a joint letter to WHO in which they expressed concerns about the election process to select its regional chief. Many of the signatories aired specific reservations about Wazed’s competence, according to a report in The Telegraph newspaper of India. 

The “desired criteria” for the post include “a strong technical and public health background and extensive experience in global health” and “proven historical evidence for public health leadership,” according to information published online by WHO.

Wazed has a master’s degree in school psychology from Barry University in Florida and is a Ph.D. candidate at the same university focusing on human resource development. 

She advises her mother’s government and WHO on mental health-related issues and is a member of the Commission for Universal Health at Chatham House, which consists of politicians, policymakers and experts worldwide.

For her work on autism, a medical university in Bangladesh named after her grandfather granted her an honorary doctorate in March. 

She also runs the Shuchona Foundation, a Bangladeshi non-profit with about a dozen employees. Her mother has raised about $1 million for the NGO through charitable donations given to the prime minister from local financial institutions, including AB Bank, United Commercial Bank, and Brac Bank.

“If she were not the daughter of the PM, I don’t think she would be a serious candidate,” Kul Chandra Gautam, a former assistant U.N. secretary-general, told The Financial Times.

Calling Wazed’s résumé “very thin,” he added, “It does not give a good image of the U.N. system or of WHO. [...] This is clearly nepotism.”

Health workers and relatives carry the body of a COVID-19 victim for cremation in Jammu, India, April 25, 2021, as the World Health Organization estimated that nearly 15 million people worldwide had died from the coronavirus or by its impact on overwhelmed health systems in the previous two years. [Channi Anand/AP]

By contrast, Acharya’s supporters point out, the Nepalese candidate has a Ph.D. in public health from the University of North Carolina, taught at several prestigious American institutions, including Johns Hopkins University, and has served in WHO’s global public health settings for 30 years.

Each of the six current regional directors at WHO holds a Ph.D. in a public health-related field or is a medical doctor with decades of experience in national and regional-level roles.

The remaining 10 candidates competing for two other equivalent regional positions at WHO also hold a Ph.D. or a medical degree, according to an article in The Lancet, one of the world’s most influential medical journals, covering the controversy.

“Such examples damage trust in the integrity of WHO’s leaders,” wrote an accompanying editorial by The Lancet last month, referring to criticism over apparent nepotism in Wazed’s nomination. 

The World Health Organization’s secretariat has not addressed the criticism.

“The process of the election of Regional Directors is driven by the Member States of each respective WHO region,” a spokesperson told BenarNews in an email.

Wazed did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but in a recent blog post, she labeled such criticism as “sexism” against her.

“I don’t know if it’s just because I’m a Muslim woman or my mother is a politician,” she previously told The Financial Times. “I don’t know why my qualifications come so much into question, but I’m used to that kind of criticism.”


Bangladesh appeared to eye the position years before submitting its formal nomination backing Wazed.

In 2021, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi traveled to Bangladesh on a state visit, the two countries said in a joint statement that India would support Bangladesh’s candidate for the position.

In August, when Wazed was formally declared Bangladesh’s candidate, Hasina personally introduced her to Xi, Biden and Modi. It was the first time that Hasina’s daughter had met China’s leader, but it was her second and third encounters with the American and Indian leaders, respectively.

Wazed’s packed travel schedule that month also took her to the tiny nation of Timor-Leste, where she met with its entire political establishment – from the president to the prime minister, foreign minister and health minister – according to a campaign disclosure posted on the WHO website. 

Élia A.A. dos Reis Amaral, the Timorese health minister, also sits on WHO’s six-member Executive Board, which will affirm the member-states’ election of the candidate.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina greets Jose Ramos-Horta, the president of Timor-Leste, during a high-level event on the Rohingya crisis, on the sidelines of the 78th United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, Sept. 21, 2023. [Angela Weiss/AFP]

In early September, she traveled with Bangladesh’s government delegation to the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Indonesia, where she attended a bilateral meeting with the Indonesian health minister.

Both Indonesia and Timor Leste are among the 11 voting members of the WHO’s Southeast Asia region, with the other members being Bhutan, North Korea, Maldives, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen, who accompanied Wazed on all of those trips abroad, recently asked Shambhu Acharya to withdraw from the race, arguing that his experiences with WHO should be considered a disqualifying factor.

“[Nepal’s candidate] had been working in the WHO for the last 30 years and was in a decision-making position. So why have [health indices] not improved in the whole of the South East Asian region, even though he himself is a person of South Asian origin?” The Hindu, an Indian newspaper, quoted Bangladesh’s top diplomat as saying.

Acharya declined to address the minister’s criticism directly but contended that the region’s public health situation had progressed significantly during the last few decades.

“In the last 30 years, substantial gains have been made in reducing natural and maternal deaths. For example, I think anybody who can read can find out how much progress has been made,” he told BenarNews. “But achieving the health objectives and goals is a shared responsibility, not only of one individual.”

He did not respond to questions about the controversy surrounding Wazed’s nomination, but added that he was confident of a victory.

Parajuli, who worked at the U.N. systems for 40 years, acknowledged that it’s common for nominating countries to campaign on behalf of its candidates.

“But I am not aware of any precedent in U.N. history that to any U.N. position at this level, sons or daughters of heads of state are being put forward and lobbied for by the heads of states themselves,” he said.

“So this becomes very exceptional.”

‘Here, nepotism is all’

In Bangladesh, criticism of Hasina or her immediate family members is considered sensitive, with many instances leading to criminal charges or even imprisonment. The local press has, by and large, refrained from covering the objections raised against Wazed’s candidacy.

A medical college in Bangladesh fired – and later reinstated – one of its professors for sharing The Lancet’s article critical of Wazed’s nomination, according to multiple sources, including a minister and the college’s vice principal.

S.M. Yasir Arafat, a U.K.-trained assistant professor at Enam Medical College and Hospital on the outskirts of Dhaka, had posted a screenshot of the article on Facebook on Sept. 23, adding, “I was surprised when I saw the nomination and started to believe that quality and skill[s] have no value. Here, nepotism is all.”

Overview of the executive board meeting at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland, Feb. 6, 2020. [Denis Balibouse/Reuters]

Enamur Rahman, a government minister from the ruling party who chairs the hospital’s board, said he had acted on a complaint from Shuchona Foundation, the non-profit chaired by Wazed.

“The post was brought to our notice,” he told BenarNews. “Then I was told, ‘You are an MP and a minister from the Awami League. And if a teacher at your medical college writes such things against Bangabandhu’s granddaughter and the daughter of Sheikh Hasina, it does not seem appropriate.’”

Bangabandhu is an honorific given to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s founding president and Hasina’s father, who was assassinated during a military coup in 1975.

Neither the Foundation nor Wazed responded to a request for comment, but Arafat’s job was reinstated two days after BenarNews sent its queries. 


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