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Tedros’ new Arsenal side in Geneva

By Kristof Decoster
on July 5, 2017

Earlier this week Mark Dybul likened Tedros’ team in Ethiopia, while he was Minister of Health, to Arsenal (the football powerhouse), “because they were young, dynamic – and incredibly effective.”  You can’t do much wrong with that – Arsenal were indeed a stunning team back then. Since the mid-2000s, though, Arsenal (and its coach) have gone through a rough stretch. They still haven’t completely recovered.

By the time Tedros gathered his second “Arsenal team” around him – when he was Minister of Foreign Affairs, that is – Arsenal Football Team also slowly woke up in London. In recent years, they even started winning again. Well, FA cups at least – the Premier league is still a bridge too far, being outspent by some rivals. (WHO staff can surely empathize 🙂 )

Dybul, calling Tedros the ‘right person at the right time for global health’ (at the helm of WHO, at this very moment), must be hoping for the Ethiopian to do his Arsenal trick all over again, for a third time, but now based in Geneva.

Indeed, unlike Arsenal, WHO actually changes its coach from time to time. The previous coach was rather good (I was certainly a fan of Margaret Chan’s style), but now it’s Tedros’ turn. Like Arsène Wenger, he’ll soon find out that some ‘partners’ have ( a lot) more money than him. Unlike Wenger, Tedros might even feel “poor” at times. His “venue” in Geneva certainly won’t help – it’s not quite the Emirates Stadium.

But money can’t buy a great team, they say, which is probably right.  What Tedros can certainly learn from Arsenal is this: even when Man United or other Chelsea’s took the league in previous years (as they routinely did), Arsenal always tried to play the game the way it should be played, i.e. as the “beautiful game” it’s meant to be. Smooth, fast, great passing, … Results are important, certainly, but they aren’t everything. You don’t want to play like José Mourinho’s teams.

Framing this in global health terms: it’s very encouraging to hear Tedros emphasize, in his speeches, ‘the right to health’, that he considers UHC as ‘the captain of his team’, and that UHC is not just technical but even more so political  (Rob Yates is his yelling assistant on the bench).

Yes, global health security & UHC might be cousins, as Tedros says, but only one can be ‘captain of the team’ (otherwise, they’ll start fighting on the pitch – and Rob Yates won’t be able to help himself either, most probably).

From what I read in Tedros’ landmark speech, in front of WHO staff, the new WHO DG wants a paradigm shift – every coach does – , but won’t be pushing perpetual reform; instead he’ll go for “continuous improvement”. Having just watched the latest Transformers episode (ridiculous movie, like all the others), with robots that can’t stop ‘transforming’ (until pretty much nothing is left to transform) I think that’s a rather smart idea. Good coaches don’t change too much at the same time, otherwise their players get confused.

As he acknowledged in his speech, Tedros still needs to identify “the best and appropriate senior leadership team” in the coming weeks.  Set up a new “Arsenal”, in short. Now, I bet he’ll make sure of a good mix of junior and senior players in his team  (if you just watched the bunch of German youngsters taking the Confederations cup, like Ilona “TOR!!” Kickbusch, you know why it’s a good idea to mix up the old & wise with some young leaders), men & women (sadly, I don’t know much about female football), and leaders from South and North.

As is also the case with Wenger every year, some players will have to go. They might have been too  linked to the previous coach (or a possible successor of Wenger, who didn’t make it in the end 🙂 ).

Arsenal also needs their fans. In WHO’s case, that’s the entire planet (yes, even Donald Trump), as Tedros himself envisions “a world in which everyone can live healthy, productive lives, regardless of who they are or where they live.” The most noisy ones – the fan club – (i.e. civil society ) – should also be involved in running the team. “We’re all part of the team”, as we like to say in Belgium (unfortunately, I don’t get paid as much as Eden Hazard & other Kompany’s 🙂 ).

Finally, as Tedros quoted Tom Peters, “change is a door that can only be opened from the inside”. Wenger (who also has a university degree), will probably agree with this rather esoterically sounding quote, even if – as he himself proves every year – it’s not that easy for human beings to change, let alone for organisations. Sometimes, you need a new coach indeed.

So yes, Tedros, do turn WHO into a global health “machine” again, like the great Arsenal side with Viera et al. But always try to follow the right philosophy. You might think health emergencies are your litmus test, and they probably are. But there are other litmus tests: a key one for you (and all your successors) will certainly be whether we can safeguard this planet for future generations as well.

PS: linked to the latter (as well as to WHO’s travel fees), you might want to hope that your team also has a couple of Dennis Bergkamp’s – that should already solve much of the overspending! 🙂 .

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