World Health Organization Reform: Lessons Learned from the Ebola Epidemic

Transformations that favor a strong global health infrastructure are badly needed.

It was October 2014, and Ebola was raging out of control in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Margaret Chan, the World Health Organization’s director-general, defended the organization against charges that its response was late and ineffective: “We are a technical agency, with governments having first priority to take care of their people.” In January 2015, the WHO executive board undertook a systematic reform of the agency’s performance, and Chan again offered a defense: I followed protocol, leaving it to the Africa office (AFRO) to respond. Yet the three nations could not possibly have stemmed the outbreak alone, and AFRO was known to be dysfunctional.

Ebola represents an inflection point requiring fundamental reform for the WHO. A failure of leadership will impact its status and legitimacy for a generation. Here, I offer five reforms that would transform it and ensure that it fulfills its constitutional mission as “the directing and coordinating authority on international health work.”