Nepal’s WHO debacle: The inside story

Excessive partisan in diplomatic affairs, oversight of foreign politics, and politicians’ inferiority complex have resulted in the erosion of Nepal’s diplomacy over the years. The recent election of the WHO Regional Director for South-East Asia Region was one evidence.

NL Today

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Kathmandu: Effective diplomacy is a prerequisite for any country’s vibrant presence in international fora. Sadly, the ability of Nepal to conduct diplomacy has been fragile and eroded over the years. Nepal’s weakened diplomatic structure has resulted in the inability of the country to leave a significant impression in international fora and institutions.  

Apart from that Nepal, as a country, has failed to lead international organizations and fora. A major diplomatic debacle the country suffered only three weeks ago went largely unnoticed. Nepal Live Today now brings the inside story of Nepal’s WHO debacle for you.

On November 1, at 8:30 in the morning, Prime Ministers of India and Bangladesh jointly launched three projects. “India is proud to be the biggest development partner of Bangladesh,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced.

On the same day, elections started at 9:00 am and daughter of Bangladeshi Prime Minister, Saima Wazed Hossein, was elected to the post of Regional Director of WHO South-East Asia Region (SEARO), in a secret ballot.

Acharya vs Saima

Dr Shambhu Acharya, who is serving as Director, Country Strategy and Support Department at the WHO headquarters in Geneva, got a call from Kathmandu in April 2021. A senior official from the Ministry of Health and Population told him that the Government of Nepal wanted to nominate him for the post of Regional Director (RD), WHO SEARO. After thinking over the proposal for a few days, Acharya agreed. 

On 30 June 2023, Nepal’s Permanent Mission to the UN in Geneva informed the WHO headquarters that they had nominated Dr Acharya for the coveted post.

Meanwhile, Bangladesh nominated Saima Wajed Hossain–the daughter of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina–for the post. While Prime Minister Hasina took her daughter to high-profile global and regional meetings including G20 in Delhi, Nepali officials remained silent throughout the campaign. When Dr Acharya arrived in Kathmandu in August 2023 to formally launch his campaign, senior Foreign Ministry officials even refused to publish a press release announcing his candidacy. When leading Nepali media broke the news, the Head of the Multilateral Division at the Ministry refused to take calls or make any formal comments.

Sources say Foreign Minister NP Saud–who represents Nepali Congress party in the CPN (Maoist Center)-led coalition–seemed committed to Nepal’s candidacy when he visited London in the first week of May 2023 to attend the coronation of King Charles.

Immediately after returning from London, he traveled to Dhaka to attend the 6th Indian Ocean Conference. When he returned to Kathmandu, he was a completely different man, officials say.

Foreign Ministry under his leadership practically did nothing to lobby for Nepal’s candidacy. When the Prime Minister’s Office wanted to send letters to chief executives of member states, Foreign Ministry officials told the PMO that it was their job and that the PMO should not be involved in it.

Question of meritocracy

Though Nepali MOFA officials were reluctant to lobby for their own candidate, former UN diplomats as well as the international public health community strongly supported Dr Acharya’s candidacy and pointed towards what they called ‘nepotism’ exhibited by the Bangladeshi candidacy.

“If she were not the daughter of the PM, I don’t think she would be a serious candidate,” said Kul Chandra Gautam, a former Assistant UN Secretary General, who called Wazed’s résumé “very thin”. “It does not give a good image of the UN system or of WHO,” Gautam told Financial Times. “This is clearly nepotism.”

Over two dozen public health academics and experts based in the UK issued a public statement calling upon the Government of Nepal to intensify its diplomatic endeavors to advocate for Dr Acharya’s exceptional candidacy. “We insist upon a transparent election process to ensure the selection of the better-qualified candidate for this pivotal position,” they said.

Ms Saima Wazed has a Master’s degree in psychology and specializes in autism. Her official title is chairperson of Bangladesh’s National Advisory Committee on Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. Acharya, who holds PhD in health policy and financing from the University of North Carolina, USA, is one of WHO’s senior-most officials.

While Bangladesh government was vigorously lobbying for their PM’s daughter using (or, mis-using) the government’s resources, Dr Acharya traveled to New York, Bangkok, Maldives and Delhi (and Gujrat state of India to take part in the 1st WHO global summit on traditional medicine) on his own expenses. In October 2023, he traveled to New York as part of the Nepali delegation led by Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda.’ Thanks to the parleys in New York, Nepal had ‘secured at least four votes’ (out of 10), sources said.

However, when he returned to Kathmandu from New York, Dr Acharya found himself cut off from the Prime Minister’s Office.

In a press meet organized on October 8, 2023, professionals from health sectors and members of civil society in Kathmandu asked the government of Nepal as well as other stakeholders to stand firmly in favor of Dr Acharya’s candidacy.

Senior journalist Kanak Mani Dixit hinted that Dr Acharya could be asked to withdraw his candidacy. “In every international forum, Bangladesh PM has been taking her daughter Saima along and introducing her to top officials,” he said. “In the name of keeping Nepal-Bangladesh relations smooth, an attempt could be made to withdraw the candidacy of Dr Acharya. This should not be allowed to happen,” he said.

Though Dr Acharya was away from Nepal when the civil society activists were supporting his candidacy, the Prime Minister’s Office saw it as their blatant criticism through the media. “Dr Acharya was together with the PM in New York and our PM lobbied during his meeting with SEARO member states, such allegations are baseless and biased,” an aide at the PMO said. The PM’s aides were so unhappy that they did not pick up the phone from Dr Acharya and did not respond to his messages. Lack of communication between Nepal’s official candidate and the PMO was perhaps one of the crucial factors leading to Nepal’s poor performance in the vote, sources say.

With only 10-days to go for the crucial vote, Dr Acharya managed to see the Prime Minister at his official residence at Baluwatar–just after he met a group of NRNs. He urged the PM to call his Indian and Thai counterparts in support of his candidacy. “Sure, I will,” Prachanda reportedly told Acharya but PMO sources say PM Prachanda never made those calls as promised.

Did India betray Nepal ?

Observers believe that the government of India did not vote for Nepal in the WHO SEARO election. Officials say Nepal had voted twice in favor of Indian candidate, Poonam Khetrapal Singh, after Indian authorities assured that they would support the Nepali candidate in the future.

But Indian media reports said the Indian government led by Narendra Modi decided to go with Bangladesh ‘due to geo-political reasons.’ Sources say Bangladesh Foreign minister himself visited and made a deal with every country in favor of voting for their candidate. 

“Nominating a candidate as the Regional Director by Member States just because she is daughter of the Prime Minister will without doubt damage WHO’s image and WHO’s technical excellence. If WHO’s integrity and credibility is to be restored, members of the Executive Board and the Director General must reflect on this and develop strict criteria to prevent political interference and nepotism happening in the future,” said a UK-based public health academic who was watching the elections closely.

WHO’s inherent weaknesses

WHO was founded in 1948 with the noble goal of promoting the highest level of health and well-being of all human beings. The organization was in the forefront of the global fight to contain the Covid pandemic. If one part of WHO gets into trouble the entire WHO’s reputation will be at risk. But the way Bangladesh nominated their PM’s daughter despite not being ‘qualified for the post’ as many believe, it exposed inherent weaknesses in the WHO’s nomination system.

“Everyone can see the interview of the two candidates and judge whether member states made the right decision,” said a South Asian public health expert based in London.

Nepal’s Loss

A soft-spoken, compassionate technocrat, Dr Acharya was able to garner widespread support from public health experts, academics, media and a large member of Nepali intelligentsia since his candidacy became public in August this year. 

He gave a number of interviews to Nepali and international media and shared his vision for the Southeast Asia region. “I am honored to have been nominated for the post of RD, WHO SEARO. I remain grateful to my country and the government of Nepal for this honor,” he wrote on social media.

Nepal has, however, lost face with its poor diplomacy (or, to be more precise no diplomacy at all) in the region and beyond. “The WHO SEARO election is an example of the incompetency of Nepal’s diplomatic mechanism and loss of faith of the international community,” said Dr Shambhu Ram Simkhada, Nepal’s former envoy to the UN. “This is but an example that nobody trusts Nepal anymore in the international community.”

Former Foreign Minister Ramesh Nath Pandey said that it was a matter of great shame that Nepal–despite being the SAARC chair–failed to garner a single vote from five SAARC members who were eligible to vote in the November 1 election. “This diplomatic debacle is a matter of shame for the entire nation,” he tweeted.

Though Dr Acharya was a candidate representing Nepal, WHO members usually vote for a nation rather than a particular individual. Voting within the UN system is usually “give and take”. You support our candidate this time and we will support your candidate next time, UN Member States usually say. Nepali officials will find it hard to answer the obvious question: Why didn’t they lobby for their ‘qualified and competent’ candidate – at the first place?

Perhaps, the WHO debacle is yet another example of corruption and apathy that’s widespread at the top level of Nepal’s government and weak WHO system for the election of its regional directors.