Cover-ups of WHO misconduct expose leadership failures

Craig Singleton

The World Health Organization (WHO) reportedly covered up sexual assault allegations involving senior agency officials, while Italian prosecutors are investigating another top WHO figure for making false statements. These abuses, in which the WHO’s director-general was allegedly complicit, reinforce the need for improved governance and transparency protocols throughout the organization to address its compromised culture.
An investigation by the Associated Press (AP) found that a WHO staffer and three experts working in Congo in 2019 reported sexual abuse allegations involving Boubacar Diallo, a WHO official who bragged about his connections to Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Diallo allegedly offered women well-paying WHO jobs in exchange for sexual favors. He also allegedly sexually assaulted one woman who refused his overtures. Diallo’s WHO work continued after these concerns were raised to Dr. Michel Yao, then responsible for leading the WHO’s Ebola campaign. During a 2019 trip to Congo, Tedros singled out Diallo for his performance, and pictures of the two men were later posted on the WHO’s website.
At the time, WHO officials reportedly told whistleblowers that “controlling the Ebola outbreak was more important” than addressing reports of misconduct, noting that Diallo was “untouchable” because of his relationship with Tedros. WHO investigators failed to interview either the victims or the whistleblowers. Internal emails revealed that senior WHO leaders were alarmed but neither fired Diallo nor put him on administrative leave.
In 2019, Yao was also informed about sexual misconduct involving another WHO official, Dr. Jean-Paul Ngandu, whom a young woman accused of impregnating her. The WHO did not discipline Ngandu, who continued working for the organization until his contract ended in 2019. He remains in talks with the WHO regarding potential future employment.
The WHO initially denied knowledge of either incident in response to AP inquiries. Several WHO officials, however, privately acknowledged to the AP that the WHO failed to tackle sexual exploitation during the Ebola outbreak. Recordings of internal WHO meetings obtained by the AP reveal that staff considered the problem systemic. During one meeting, Andreas Mlitzke, director of the WHO’s Office of Compliance, Risk Management and Ethics, stated that the WHO typically “takes the passive approach” in its investigations and could not be expected to uncover wrongdoing among staffers.
But the wrongdoing is coming to light anyhow.
Italian prosecutors are also investigating another WHO official, Dr. Ranieri Guerra, for making false statements about a spiked agency report concerning Italy’s coronavirus response. Guerra previously served as the WHO’s liaison to the Italian government. Before that, he was a top official in the Italian Health Ministry, responsible for updating the country’s pandemic protocols. The investigation centers on whether Guerra and the WHO pulled the report from its website to spare the Italian government, and Guerra himself, from criticism, embarrassment, and legal liability for Italy’s failure to update its pandemic preparedness plan in the years before COVID-19.
In WhatsApp messages, Guerra claimed, “[I]n the end I went to Tedros and got the document removed.” Guerra has denied any role in the report’s removal, claiming that the original impetus came from the WHO’s Beijing office, which objected to a politically sensitive timeline of the virus’ origins in China.
Previous organizational reviews have raised red flags about the WHO’s institutional culture, including its prioritization of political over technical considerations. In 2016, an independent panel urged the WHO to overhaul its human resources management and to establish an inspector general’s office. While some measures were instituted to address governance deficiencies, many of the 2016 panel’s recommended reforms remain unrealized.
The U.S. government and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which together provide a third of the WHO’s budget, should use their financial leverage to bring about reform. This could include congressionally earmarking future voluntary U.S. contributions to fund independent investigations into these incidents, including Tedros’ possible role in suppressing investigations involving his friends.
The WHO should also restructure its sexual assault reporting framework and address attempts to interfere in the publication of COVID-19-related information, whether in Italy, China, or elsewhere.