On October 18, 2017, Robert Mugabe, the President of Zimbabwe, was appointed goodwill ambassador for non-communicable diseases in Africa by the World Health Organization (WHO). Four days later, CNN reported that Mugabe was removed from this position amid outcry from human rights activists. Many of those in opposition to the appointment referenced the fact that President Mugabe has repeatedly been placed under sanctions for human rights abuses by both the United States and European Union. While the WHO has remedied the situation, many are still confused as to why the decision to appoint Mugabe was made in the first place.
According to the WHO, a goodwill ambassador raises awareness of specific health concerns. In this case, the concern was non-communicable disease (NCD). NCDs kill roughly forty million people annually, accounting for seventy percent of all deaths globally. By appointing Robert Mugabe as goodwill ambassador, WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus hoped to “influence [Mugabe’s] peers in his region.” There are several reasons why so many believed this to be a terrible error.
A study done by the WHO in 2014 indicates Zimbabwe is far behind in the treatment of those with NCDs. The WHO states that the keys to battling NCDs are detection, screening, and treatment. They also recommend that countries allow easy access to palliative care, which provides comfort to patients at the point of diagnosis and throughout treatment. The WHO suggests nine different response systems for NCDs to ensure they are combated effectively. These include having a national cancer registry, a policy to reduce harmful use of alcohol, and a monitoring system for NCDs. Of these nine systems, Zimbabwe has one. This data was, ironically, collected by the same organization that appointed Robert Mugabe to the role.
In 2009, the Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) released a report detailing the “utter collapse” of Zimbabwe’s health system under Mugabe’s rule. When Robert Mugabe came to power in 1980, many believed he would do great things. However, between 1990 and 2006, the average life expectancy fell from 62 years to 36 years. This is due in no small part to Mugabe’s calculated attacks against his detractors. He has been known to provide food and medical supplies only to areas of Zimbabwe that supported his reelection and to those of a specific ethnic group: the Shona. All others are left to suffer. One nurse quoted in the PHR report said that even when they do get the correct medical supplies, citizens are so malnourished that the medication provided doesn’t work properly.
Given these human rights abuses, it is clear why so many voiced their opposition to Mugabe’s appointment. One of the loudest voices came from the main opposition party in Zimbabwe, the MDC. Spokesman Obert Gutu said, “Mugabe trashed our health delivery system. He and his family go outside of the country for treatment in Singapore after he allowed our public hospitals to collapse.” Mugabe’s behavior has forced organizations worldwide to act. According to their website, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control has placed sanctions on Mugabe and other members of his government. If institutions such as the United States Treasury Department have put pressure on Zimbabwean officials, then why would the WHO originally select Mugabe as an ambassador?
In his statement rescinding Mugabe’s appointment, Tedros Ghebreyesus said, “It is my aim to build a worldwide movement for global health. This movement must work for everyone and include everyone…I remain firmly committed to working with all countries and their leaders to ensure that every one has access to the health care they need.” Ghebreyesus wants all leaders to be involved in global health. Unfortunately, not all leaders are equipped with the skill, or even the humanity, to promote the values of the World Health Organization.