Transforming WHO AFRO to Transform Health in the African Region

Op-Ed by Dr Matshidiso Moeti

The 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa and its devastating toll on human life were stark reminders of the dangers posed by weak health systems. For the international community, the outbreak highlighted the importance of health security and epidemic-preparedness, and demonstrated just how quickly local disease outbreaks can become global issues. 

There is almost universal agreement that the international response to the Ebola outbreak was inadequate – it was too slow, too little and too late. All responders, including the World Health Organization (WHO), were overwhelmed by the scale and devastation of Ebola.

Fortunately, however, thanks to the herculean efforts of local and global partners, we have been able to nearly halt this deadly epidemic in its tracks. Still, there is evidence that the virus may persist for months in some survivors, leading to flare-ups of the disease, as occurred last week in Liberia.

In short, now is not the time for complacency; instead, it is the time for cautious optimism, reflection and for action. The next outbreak, whatever and wherever it may be, may present new and even more complex challenges, and we must be prepared. This is not merely an option; it is a mandate. 

At the WHO Regional Office for Africa (WHO AFRO), we take our own responsibility to deliver on this mandate very seriously. To prevent another crisis like the one we just experienced, we are changing the way we do business – quickly and substantively. 

Today, we have taken a step in the right direction. At the 65th session of the WHO Regional Committee for Africa in N’Djamena, Chad, health ministers and senior officials from WHO AFRO’s 47 Member States endorsed our organization’s new  This agenda will turn WHO AFRO into the responsive, transparent and effective health agency that region needs and deserves.

The reforms endorsed today will focus on four key areas. We will promote and instill shared values such as excellence, innovation, accountability and transparency. We will focus the technical work of the WHO Secretariat on priorities that reflect the most important health problems in the Region, ensuring that evidence-based interventions are employed when and where they are needed most. We will build responsive strategic operations and strengthen management capacity to more effectively match resources to pressing health challenges. And, finally, we will enhance strategic partnerships and more effectively articulate and communicate WHO’s contribution to health development across the region.

These four transformational focus areas are not just talking points or buzz words– they will be measured and evaluated against a robust set of performance indicators, with rigorous monitoring and evaluation to gauge how we are progressing. They will be used to hold WHO AFRO – and me – accountable to our most important stakeholders: Africa’s people.

In many ways, WHO AFRO’s transformation has already begun. Since February, we have been working to strengthen epidemic preparedness and response in 14 non-Ebola countries, resulting in the successful control of outbreaks of meningitis in Niger, cholera among refugees in Kigoma in Tanzania and typhoid fever in Zambia. We’ve improved our collaboration with international partners, including with the African Union Commission (AUC) as we work toward the establishment the African Centre for Disease Control. We’re working to grow Africa’s health research capacity, strengthen health systems and, ultimately, ensure universal health coverage.

These much-needed reforms at WHO AFRO come at a crucial moment. Just two months ago, the international community agreed to a new framework – the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – that will guide our collective efforts to build a better, healthier and more sustainable world over the next fifteen years. While the African region has come a long way toward improving the health and well-being of its citizens, a renewed push is needed to fulfill the unfinished agenda of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and realize the promise of the SDGs. 

Guided by our Transformation Agenda, WHO AFRO stands ready to lead in this new era – but we cannot do this alone. Achieving truly transformative change across the region will require support from partners across all sectors, including government, industry, civil society, academia and local communities. We must all step up and commit ourselves to achieving the SDGs and building the Africa we want to leave behind for our children. 

I am convinced that, by working together, we can and will bring health in the African region to a new level. The time to start is now.

About the author: Dr Matshidiso Moeti is the WHO Regional Director for Africa. Dr Moeti is a public health veteran, with more than 35 years of national and international experience. She is the first woman to serve as the WHO Regional Director for Africa.