Robert Mugabe is an improbable Goodwill Ambassador for Health

WHO have cancelled Mugabe’s goodwill ambassador role, but this was an uncharacteristic misstep by the WHO DG

The World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) new appointment of Goodwill Ambassador for Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) in Africa has left many scratching their heads. In a speech given last Wednesday the WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros, announced that “President Mugabe has agreed to serve as a goodwill ambassador on NCDs for Africa to influence his peers in his region to prioritize NCDs.”            

Robert Mugabe has been President of Zimbabwe since 1987 and is a controversial and divisive figure who has held on to power as a strongman. Naturally, given his 93 years of age, some are reflecting on the twilight of his rule but when he does go a straightforward democratic transfer of power seems unlikely.

As Goodwill Ambassador President Mugabe will join other well-known personalities raising awareness of important health issues. One might wonder whether this health remit wouldn’t naturally fall within the responsibilities of a sitting President without the need for an Ambassadorship. Human rights activists have described the appointment as absurd and health experts have expressed their disbelief.

Dr Tedros’ has rightly received praise for his approach and political acumen in his first 100 days as Director General of the WHO. In particular his appointment of a leadership team of mostly women from 14 different countries is a brilliant step forward. It begs the question: why has he appointed an Ambassador with Mugabe’s credentials?

Health is a political choice and perhaps the appointment of President Mugabe as Goodwill Ambassador is realpolitik in action. The challenge of NCDs in Africa is real and growing. Dr Tedros potentially has a powerful influencer on side. Mugabe has his supporters and has substantial influence. Yet, the appointment still feels like an improbable decision to have made.   

Much of the current discussions in global health are on the importance of collaboration across different sectors of the economy to address the broadly focused Sustainable Development Goals. With that in mind, it would be reasonable to assume that the minimum requirements for a WHO Goodwill Ambassador are that they have not used coercion and violence to consolidate political power, they haven’t crashed their country’s economy, and they haven’t undermined people’s right to health.

For many people appointing a Goodwill Ambassador with the track record of Robert Mugabe will feel like an uncharacteristic misstep by the WHO Director General.

Paul Simpson is the International Audience Editor for The BMJ.

Competing interests: None declared.