Jackie Chan

Poll position

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 September, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 September, 2006, 12:00am

She is the rising star of the world's global health body, hotly tipped in many quarters to be the next director-general of the World Health Organisation. But Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun yesterday seemed undaunted by the weight of expectation as she launched the manifesto that would underpin her campaign for the top job.

The seven-page policy document was released from Geneva yesterday - 40 days after Beijing announced her candidacy and on the final day for filing nominations.

Now a public health specialist, the 60-year-old obstetrician and former school teacher is among at least 10 contenders vying to succeed Lee Jong-wook, of South Korea, who died suddenly in May at the age of 61. Lee spent three years of a five-year term at the head of the UN health agency.

Some pundits have played down the importance of platforms in the election, suggesting that the battle would be decided simply by how many votes each candidate wins among the 34 WHO member states represented on the organisation's elite executive board.

But perhaps a key factor will be how China and Dr Chan fare in the behind-the-scenes jockeying for votes in the run-up to the elections, to be held from November 6 to 9. Dr Chan's personal merits will be weighed and measured against the other runners to decide the best placed to run the 58-year-old UN health agency.

Dr Chan outlined her policies in a teleconference for Hong Kong media from Geneva, during a rare stop-over in a campaign that began after Beijing declared her candidacy on July 25. After yesterday's press briefing, Dr Chan was preparing to visit more of the 34 member states in a tour that has already taken her to Africa and Europe.

Dr Chan has refused to disclose her travel itinerary, concerned that she would be followed by the 'energetic' Hong Kong media, but North and South America are likely destinations.

Prior to the release of the manifesto, entitled Attaining Results for Health, Dr Chan said health challenges facing the world were 'daunting, but these are optimistic times'.

'The WHO has the mandate, experience and authority to do great good in this world,' she said, adding that if 'positive forces could be harnessed under strong leadership', then the 'WHO can attain impressive results'.

She pointed to the firm foundation set out by Lee and his predecessors, but added that the WHO must respond to the challenges of a changing world. Dr Chan said health must be given 'a central place in social, economic and political agendas'.

To realise the WHO's vision of the 'highest possible level of health' for all people, 'the WHO needs leadership that is people-centred and results- driven, and sees improved health as a route to achieving sustainable personal, social and economic development'.

She committed herself to serving the WHO's 192 member states, promoting 'fruitful partnerships' and working to improve the relevance of the WHO.

Her six main themes are development, security, capacity, information and knowledge, partnerships, and performance. To implement these priorities, Dr Chan listed 22 key commitments on her to-do list. Among those were enhanced access to HIV treatment, eradication of polio, and to support full implementation of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

Another goal was to further strengthen WHO mechanisms for rapid response to public health emergencies. She said the implementation of the International Health Regulations would contribute to a safer world.

She also wants to revitalise the WHO health systems agenda, and establish a global health observatory to collect and collate data on priority health problems.

Another pledge is to listen closely to 'grass-roots voices'. She also promised to accelerate reform of human resources to build a better work ethic within the WHO.

'Health development and enhanced health security are driving forces that benefit all countries,' she said. 'Improvements in health will be facilitated by better health system capacity, solid knowledge and well-directed and co-ordinated partnerships.'

Today at the WHO headquarters in Geneva, the chairman of the organisation's Executive Board, Fernando Antezana Aranibar of Bolivia, will open the nomination envelopes and post a list of official candidates on its website. Between now and October 5, the candidates' plans will be sent out to member states. The vote, to be held at the Geneva headquarters, is expected to go down to the wire.

Dr Chan was a surprise candidate for the job. The announcement of her candidacy was quickly followed by a week-long visit to the mainland and Hong Kong. That visit included a high-profile meeting with Vice-Premier and Health Minister Wu Yi , named by Forbes magazine as the world's third-most influential woman.

Dr Chan's nomination surprised some observers. Not known to be popular among mainland officials, her performance at the WHO appears to have convinced the central government that she would be a necessary and useful ally if China were to increase her profile in the international arena, perhaps seeing her as a counter-point to US influence.

Dr Chan was handpicked by Lee as one of his top officials when he assumed the post in July 2003. She was named WHO's director of protection of the human environment, succeeding Richard Helmer, who retired in August 2003.

She has been internationally recognised for her work in containing bird flu in 1997, and for being the first to alert the WHO to the Sars outbreak in March 2003. Dr Chan was one of nine new directors hired by the agency, and together with nine new assistant directors-general, helped Lee chart the WHO's direction.

As director of protection of the human environment, Dr Chan was in charge of various sections including children, food safety, climate, noise, water and sanitation, and chemical incidents.

After heading the Hong Kong Health Department and its 7,000 staff, Dr Chan's move to lead a department of 70 attracted ridicule in the Chinese-language press. But by June last year, she had shown she was a survivor. again reshuffled his senior staff, promoting Dr Chan to director of communicable diseases surveillance and response - as well as his representative for pandemic influenza.

In September she was again promoted to WHO assistant director general of communicable diseases, while retaining her second post as representative of the director-general for pandemic influenza. As with other WHO insiders, Dr Chan is on leave during the campaign period, as required under the organisation's election rules.

Her qualities were tested in early 2004, when, after only five months at the WHO, she was called back to Hong Kong for a Legislative Council inquiry into the handling of the Sars outbreak. Several former and serving legislators criticised her, and in the inquiry report, Dr Chan faced a motion of censure in July of that year.

Today, Dr Chan's critics have all but disappeared. Hong Kong - as well as Macau - despite having no voting rights, are part of the Chinese delegation at WHO meetings.

Former medical legislator Lo Wing-lok, who was one of her harshest critics, is among the few who have not supported her bid for the leadership. Dr Lo doubted whether she would be an effective leader of the WHO, based on her past performance as Hong Kong director of health.

'The information on [diseases] from the Ministry of Health would arrive in Hong Kong late, so Dr Chan had not been very effective in getting information from the central government,' Dr Lo said.

Before she left for Geneva on August 18, 2003, Dr Chan said it was a truck driver who convinced her to take up the WHO post, despite the fact that she still had a year to run on her two-year contract with the government. She had passed retirement age and had been persuaded to stay on in the post in 2002.

'When I was waiting for my driver after work, I was still considering whether I should accept the new post offered by the WHO - in fact the news had been in the newspapers that morning,' she said. 'All of a sudden, a truck stopped in front of me and the driver poked his head out of the window. He said: 'Mrs Chan, you should take this chance to serve Hong Kong and China. Good chances like this one do not happen all the time'.'

As she sets her sights on the world body's top job, it appears Dr Chan agrees with him.