A little-known tuberculosis expert from South Korea was selected Tuesday as director-general of the World Health Organization, promising to channel more resources to those worst hit by the AIDS epidemic and other scourges.
Jong-wook Lee, head of WHO's Stop TB Program, defeated four higher-profile candidates including Mozambique's prime minister, Mexico's health minister and the head of UNAIDS for the post after a closely fought race.
In a secret ballot among WHO's 32-member executive committee, Lee received 17 votes compared to 15 votes for UNAIDS chief Peter Piot on the seventh round of voting. Mozambique's premier, Pascoal Mocumbi, was defeated in an earlier round, dashing hopes that the U.N. health agency top job would go to an African for the first time.
The executive board's decision is subject to approval by the full 192-nation World Health Assembly in May, although this is normally automatic. It will be the first time a South Korean has headed a U.N. agency.
Lee, 57, will replace former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, who is stepping down in July after five years as director of the Geneva-based organization and will oversee a budget of more than US$1 billion per year. In addition to tackling infectious diseases and poverty-related ailments, the new WHO chief will have to chart choppy new waters such as advances in biotechnology and cloning.
Lee singled out the battle against HIV/AIDS — which has infected about 42 million people and threatens the development of entire countries — as one of his top preoccupations and said Africa would be his priority.
"Our mission is at once extremely simple and challenging and that is attainment by all of the highest level of health," he told journalists.
He said one of his aims would be to decentralize WHO so that by 2005, 75 percent of WHO's resources and staff would be in countries and regional offices rather than concentrated at its Geneva headquarters.
"I think it is better that people and money are deployed to closer where there is action," he said.
Lee was the only WHO insider in the race and the only candidate never to have held a ministerial or top U.N. post. He started work for WHO 19 years ago on leprosy programs in the South Pacific, and on vaccine development projects. He has headed WHO's anti-TB program for just over two years, gaining the reputation as an efficient and popular administrator.
He was initially regarded as a political lightweight, but showed his acumen early on in the race by persuading 53 members of U.S. Congress to write to Secretary of State Colin Powell and Tommy Thompson, the health secretary, backing him.
Although the United States did not publicly declare its choice, it threw its weight behind Mexican health minister Julio Frenk, who was unsuccessful because he enjoyed little support within Latin America.
Lee benefited from a smooth and well-funded campaign backing by the South Korean government, and from a solid block of Asian support on the executive board — even picking up the vote of North Korea, which is a member this year.
By contrast, European support for Piot, a Belgian, was apparently split.
After the result Piot said he would stay on as head of UNAIDS and work closely with WHO.
"It is important that the organizations are united and that WHO and UNAIDS work together. There's a lot of work to do," he said.
The biggest loser was Mozambique's Mocumbi, who was eliminated in the fourth round of voting. A former health and foreign minister before becoming premier in 1994, Mocumbi held the early lead in the campaign because of a widespread belief that it was Africa's turn to head the U.N. agency.
But in the final voting, Mocumbi failed to rally Africa behind him.
"Something happened with the African vote, but we don't know what," said a visibly shaken Brazilian ambassador, Luis Felipe de Seixas Correa, who spearheaded Mocumbi's campaign.
"It's a missed opportunity for Africa, but there will be other opportunities," he said.