The process of selecting a new leader for the World Health Organization recently concluded after being unexpectedly triggered by the sudden death of Dr. Lee Jong-wook halfway into his first term.
This sad event marred the opening of the World Health Assembly last May and was announced with moving words by the exiting chair, Elena Salgado, Minister Health of Spain.
Lee's death sparked wide fears that there would be a vacuum of power in the United Nation's lead agency responsible for intergovernmental relations and cooperation in the protection and advancement of global health.
Today, health is at the center of the global political agenda, and the global community expects firm and balanced leadership in this U.N. body to enable it to confront serious global threats such as avian flu.
The 193 WHO Member States reacted quickly and decisively, convening an extraordinary meeting of the Executive Board, appointing Anders Nordstrom (of Sweden) as Acting Director-General, and defining an ad hoc fast-track process for the election of a new Director-General.
There were a few alarmist voices who questioned the capacity of WHO's internal bureaucracy to ensure continuity of duties and to guarantee a smooth electoral process. There were also questions regarding transparency and the commitment of governments to choosing the most effective leadership.
But today we can note with satisfaction the completion in six short months of an institutional and collective process that must be qualified as exemplary.
Of the 13 originally registered candidates, two (from Ecuador and Syria) withdrew at the last moment. The 34 delegates who constitute the WHO Executive Board had to narrow the list to five in their first meeting and then call the selected candidates to present their proposals. After this, secret ballots were issued on November 8.
It is worthy of note that there were three women among the 13 nominees: Margaret Chan of China, Elena Salgado of Spain, and Tomris Turmen of Turkey. They came in first, fourth, and sixth in the final ranking, which speaks highly of their qualifications and performance throughout the competition.
Also worth mentioning is the fact that five of the six first places were taken by former or current WHO staff members, including the Minister of Health of Mexico, Dr. Julio Frenk (who finished second), and the Regional Director of the Western Pacific Region, Dr. Shigeru Omi (who placed third).
It is clear that this time, Dr. Chan and her fellow women candidates were able to break through the famous "glass ceiling" that so often keeps women leaders from fulfilling their potential.
Let us all celebrate the election of Margaret Chan to one of the most influential positions on the world scene. She is a woman of experience:from the world's largest developing nation:who has competed successfully against excellent candidates with strong backgrounds and training. She is now ready to lead:for the next five years:the organization charged with the tremendous responsibility of ensuring global health.
Mirta Roses Periago
Margaret Chan: Acceptance speech delivered to the Executive Board
WHO News Release: Director-General Elect: Dr Margaret Chan