Saima Wazed: Lancet and Financial Times raise questions about WHO nomination

Without academic qualifications or work experience, prime minister’s daughter’s nomination threatens “to delegitimise” the election process and “future credibility” of WHO regional directors and “damage trust” in integrity of the organisation.

Saima Wazed: Lancet and Financial Times raise questions about WHO nomination
Saima Wazed. Photo: Alamy.

One of the world’s most respected medical magazines, The Lancet, has strongly criticised the nomination of Saima “Putul” Wazed — the daughter of Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina — to the position of the regional director of South-East Asia at the World Health Organisation (WHO), a post which oversees an annual budget of almost $550 million covering 11 countries.

In its editorial, the magazine states that the nomination of Saima Wazed threatens “to delegitimise both the election process and the future credibility of elected WHO Regional Directors” as well as “damage[ing] trust in the integrity of WHO’s leaders.”

An article in the UK’s Financial Times (FT) newspaper also quotes experts’ criticism of the nomination.

Wazed is competing against one other person, Shambhu Acharya, a senior WHO official from Nepal for the post, with the election taking place in October 2023 by secret ballot at a meeting of the regional committee. Each of the 11 countries gets a vote. Elections for two other WHO regional posts will also take place at the same time.

The Lancet editorial cites an accompanying news report which contains serious criticism of Wazed’s background, competence and integrity.

This news report notes that “Wazed’s highest academic qualification is an MSc in clinical psychology from Barry University” in Miami while “the 11 other candidates for the regional director positions are either medical doctors or have PhDs, or are medical doctors who also have PhDs.”

Acharya, who Wazed is competing against, has been at the UN body for almost 30 years and holds a PhD in public health.

The Lancet report notes that Wazed posts on the platform X (formerly Twitter), under the username @drSaimaWazed, “presumably on the strength of an honorary doctorate she was awarded earlier this year by a Bangladeshi university named after her grandfather.”

The article also points out Wazed’s publicly available application form to the post only “summarises her experience as a school psychologist and her history of advocacy for autism.” The medical journal refers to the section in her application form where “she describes her work with a non-governmental organisation that she founded and which employs 12 people.”  

In the public health leadership section of the application form Wazed simply writes, “I have designed and provided technical expertise to several international conferences, side events at UNGA [UN General Assembly] and other national conferences”, and adds that she has “spoken on numerous panels.”

The Lancet quotes Salmaan Keshavjee, Professor of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School: “It is important that the individual chosen to be WHO Regional Director for South-East Asia has advanced training in medicine and public health, and has a demonstrated record of leadership.”

An article published on September 25th 2023 in the Financial Times, titled “Push by Bangladesh PM’s daughter for WHO role also raises transparency concerns”, quotes similar criticism of the nomination.

“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 UN secretary-general, who called Wazed’s résumé “very thin”, told the paper. “It does not give a good image of the UN system or of WHO [...] This is clearly nepotism.”

The Financial Times also quotes a senior health policy worker in Bangladesh saying that Wazed’s nomination showed the politicisation of Bangladesh’s health sector, “She came from a political family and her mother is prime minister [...] Every single work that she does is highlighted [by the government].”

The Lancet article raises question about whether Wazed many have breached WHO’s ethical standards. It notes that her social media feed “has photographs of her with her mother at the summits of the Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa bloc (known as BRICS) and G20 earlier this year, where she met world leaders such as US President Joe Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping.”

On this, a WHO insider is quoted as saying that by “campaigning at the global summits she attended, [...] she is likely to have breached the WHO code of conduct for the nomination of the Regional Director and the candidature could be declared void. [...] This matter should be referred to the WHO Legal Counsel”. This insider goes on to say: “Politics always plays a part, but the regional director position is a technical role and if it is appointed purely on personal connection, WHO will have its reputation seriously undermined.”

The Lancet was unable to contact Wazed: “Emails The Lancet sent to the address provided by Wazed on her application form bounced back, and we did not receive a response to text messages.”

The  Financial Times however had better luck. Wazed told the paper that accusations of nepotism were “offensive”, and cited her advocacy experience as part of her relevant skill set. “I don’t know if it’s just because I’m a Muslim woman or my mother is a politician. [...] I don’t know why my qualifications come so much into question but I’m used to that kind of criticism. [...] I can’t help that I am who I am.”●