I'm modern Robin Hood, says WHO head

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 August, 2011, 12:00am


Dr Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun has defended her record as head of the World Health Organisation in the face of mounting pressure by member states for reforms of the UN agency.

Chan, who is seeking a second term, said in an interview with TVB yesterday that her performance as the director general in the past few years was 'widely recognised'.

The controversial former director of health in Hong Kong said: 'The WHO director general is like an international civil servant.

'The constitution and the appointment document do state that I have to act in a fair and just manner. After 41/2 years, member states agree that I have been acting impartially.'

Likening herself to a 'modern Robin Hood', she promised to secure more funding to help upgrade the health-care services of developing countries if she could serve another five-year term.

But she said she would favour the poorer countries. 'Sometimes, some of my decisions are not welcomed by all countries.

'But at the end, they still agree that my decisions are for the interest of the underprivileged groups, for the developing countries and for the poor countries, and they respect me,' said Chan.

'That is why I travel a lot to visit [poor] countries to see for myself what the real situation is like there. If I only sat in the office in Geneva, seeing the beautiful scenery, without any frontline experience, what I say cannot be convincing.'

This year, Chan acknowledged the agency had to embark on reforms, especially in financial accountability, amid pressure from member states. The WHO slashed its budget by nearly US$1 billion for the next two years and cut 300 jobs at its headquarters. But its partnerships with the private sector and foundations that provide a growing share of voluntary contributions have led activists to fear the WHO's independence could be compromised.

Chan visited Beijing last month where she secured China's full support for her re-election.

Chan, 64, took office as the WHO's chief in January 2007, becoming the first Chinese to lead a United Nations agency. Her term will end next June.

Chan's career has been dogged by controversies, such as her handling of the swine flu crisis in 2009 when she was accused of 'overreaction'.

She took the step of raising the WHO's pandemic alert level to phase five for the first time in history, meaning that a global epidemic was believed to be emerging. In March, a WHO-appointed group of experts published a report criticising the agency's handling of the epidemic, saying the agency failed to dispel confusion even in the most basic definition of a pandemic.

Last year, she paid a brief visit to North Korea and praised its immunisation coverage and mother and child care. She also said she saw no shortage of doctors and nurses in the reclusive totalitarian country.

In 1997, Chan ordered all 1.5 million chickens in Hong Kong to be killed during the bird flu outbreak - two weeks after she tried to dismiss public fears by boasting that she ate chicken every day.

In 1996, she said a ban on British beef was not needed during the mad cow disease scare - two days later the government announced an immediate ban on all imports.

Chan was also accused of failing to respond in time to the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003. A critical Legislative Council report said she was not 'proactive'.