Recently, the WHO appointed Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe as a goodwill ambassador. The Director-General of the UN health agency, Tedros Ghebreyesus, asked Mugabe to help tackle non-communicable disease like heart attacks and asthma across Africa. However, this decision has attracted global criticism and outrage. Members of WHO have expressed confusion and anger as they noted that Zimbabwe’s public health system collapsed under Mugabe’s reign. Given this history, how can Mugabe effectively fulfill his role as a goodwill ambassador now?
In fact, Tedros said he was “honored” to announce that Mugabe had accepted this role. He praised Zimbabwe as “a country that places universal health coverage at the center of its policies to provide healthcare to all.” But it seems that others do not share the same opinion. Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, MDC, deemed the decision not only “laughable” but also as “an insult.” After all, party spokesperson Obert Gutu claimed that “the Zimbabwe health delivery system is in a shambolic state.” MDC is by no means the only criticizer, as the UK government also regarded the WTO’s decision as “surprising and disappointing.” A spokesperson at Downing Street stated that British diplomats had demonstrated serious concerns. It is suspected that Mugabe’s appointment could overshadow the work done by the WHO on non-communicable diseases. In addition to that, the US state department also worried that “this appointment clearly contradicts the UN ideals of respect for human rights.” In comparison, the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is more candid. He considered the appointment as “a bad April Fool’s joke.”
Indeed, the concerns shown by the MDC, the UK government, the US government and others are not groundless. Human rights campaigners have repeatedly accused the Zimbabwe leader of violent repression, election fraud and economic ruin. They maintain that Mugabe totally mismanaged the country’s economy, which devastated the domestic health services. Medical staff often receive no salary and medicines are scarcely supplied. Ironically, the president himself never resorted to domestic hospital. Allegedly, he and some of his officials travel to countries like Singapore for medical treatment on a regular basis. Such behaviour clearly demonstrates that Zimbabwe’s health system is in critical condition. Undoubtedly, though this goodwill ambassador position does not involve any executive role, Mugabe’s appointment could still damage WHO’s credibility.
To be frank, most of the UN’s previous goodwill ambassadors did a good job. Celebrities were particularly influential. For instance, Angelina Jolie was ambassador for the UN Refugee Agency. To fulfill her role, she regularly comforted displaced families in crowded refugee camps. Tennis star Roger Federer played charity matches to raise money for aid projects in Africa. Former Unicef goodwill ambassador Audrey Hepburn frequently visited disaster zones in order to attract donors. With these examples in mind, it is hard to imagine what 93-year-old Mugabe would bring to the table. Goodwill ambassadors should at least have a positive image and use their fame to encourage others to support UN’s cause. To provide context, according to WHO, non-communicable diseases such as cancers and diabetes kill around 40 million people a year. However, Mugabe seems to be the wrong person to garner support to combat these grave diseases. Given his appalling human rights record, Mugabe does not show any willingness to make a positive difference. If the WHO cannot decide what Mugabe is going to do in his role, the organization should consider another candidate. Moreover, Mugabe owes it to his people to rebuild the collapsed health systems if he cannot grant them the same Singaporean health treatment he receives.
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