Bangladesh PM’s daughter voted in as WHO regional head despite criticism

BenarNews staff
Bangladesh PM’s daughter voted in as WHO regional head despite criticism Saima Wazed (right) takes a selfie with Shambhu Acharya, her sole rival candidate from Nepal, for the job of regional director for the World Health Organization, during the 76th session of the WHO Regional Committee for the South-East Asia Region, in New Delhi, Oct. 30, 2023.

Regional countries voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to nominate Saima Wazed, the daughter of Bangladesh’s prime minister, to serve as the World Health Organization’s director for Southeast Asia, despite controversies surrounding her qualifications and allegations of nepotism.

WHO officials confirmed that Wazed was voted in as the nominee for the post during a closed-doors meeting in New Delhi, but did not answer questions from BenarNews about criticism clouding her candidacy for the U.N. health agency’s top regional job.

The Indian capital is home to the headquarters of WHO’s South-East Asia Regional Office, which covers 11 countries in South and Southeast Asia and a quarter of the world’s population.  

“You have earned the confidence and trust of the Member States in the region,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the WHO, in a congratulatory post on X, formerly known as Twitter, referring to Wazed. “I am committed and look forward to working closely with you for a healthier, safer, fairer South-East Asia.”

Ten of the WHO’s regional member-states voted for Wazed, the daughter of Sheikh Hasina, while two voted for Shambhu Acharya, a Nepalese and the only other candidate for the job. In a social media post, Md Shahriar Alam, Bangladesh’s state minister for foreign affairs, said Wazed was elected by an 8-2 vote.

The WHO said the nomination of Wazed would be submitted to the U.N. health body’s executive board in late January 2024 in Geneva, where it was all but certain to be approved.

“As far as I know, the nomination by a regional committee of a candidate was always confirmed at the Executive Board meeting, and the nominee appointed at that meeting,” Fadela Chaib, a WHO spokeswoman in Geneva, told BenarNews.

Wazed is expected to formally assume the role in February, the WHO release said. The role has a 5-year tenure, which can be extended once.

The 49-year-old defeated Acharya, 65, her opponent in the race.

Their rivalry attracted significant attention in the global public health community, with critics alleging that Wazed was underqualified for the position, which comes with a budget of over U.S. $500 million.

In a post on X, Wazed thanked the member states for electing her and paid tribute to her rival, Shambhu Acharya, for his “long & distinguished career.”

Acharya declined to comment when approached by BenarNews.

The WHO’s Southeast Asia region also includes Bhutan, India, Indonesia, Maldives, Myanmar, North Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Timor-Leste.


Critics argue that the WHO position requires a person with technical expertise, and that current holders of equivalent positions have a Ph.D. in a public health-related field or a medical degree.

Wazed graduated from Barry University in the United States in 1997 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and, in 2002, received a master’s degree in clinical psychology. She was awarded an honorary doctorate by a local university named after her grandfather.

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

The criticism also prompted an editorial from The Lancet, one of the world’s most respected medical journals, which stated, “Such examples damage trust in the integrity of WHO’s leaders.”

Her managerial experience also came under scrutiny, because her small-scale NGO was significantly funded by donations given to her mother as prime minister.

Sheikh Hasina also introduced her daughter to global leaders, including U.S. President Joe Biden, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, shortly after Bangladesh nominated her as its candidate.

Bangladesh secured India’s support for its candidate as early as 2021, and Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen accompanied Wazed to numerous meetings with dignitaries of the voting states, according to her campaign disclosure posted on the WHO’s website.

“We have been campaigning for this election for a long time,” Momen told reporters after Wazed’s victory was announced.

Wazed did not respond to repeated requests for comments about the controversies, but 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.”


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