Health chief at bay over `racist' gaffe

A row over alleged racist remarks by the Japanese head of the World Health Organisation was formally raised at a meeting of African ambassadors to the United Nations in Geneva yesterday, in a new embarrassment for the WHO.

Hiroshi Nakajima, the director-general, is alleged to have told subordinates that although Africans could speak well, they had difficulty "drafting or editing or writing" documents. He is also said to have expressed the view that African officials were "unable to adapt to the culture" in Geneva.

Forty-eight African members of the 4,500 WHO staff wrote to Dr Nakajima to protest at "stereotyping", describing his comments as "incorrect, unjustified and without any foundation." The remarks also breached UN regulations saying staff should be chosen "without regard to race". After the allegations were printed in the Geneva Post, Dr Nakajima called a press conference to deny he intended to give offence.

"I am not apologising but I regret that what was said at an informal meeting was misunderstood," he said. The controversy is the latest misfortune to beset Dr Nakajima, who won re-election to the top WHO job two years ago in a contest dogged by allegations of malpractice and vote-buying. An official auditors' report later criticised payments made by WHO to delegates, and Dr Nakajima promised reforms.

Britain and the US, which opposed Dr Nakajima's re-election, are still unsatisfied by WHO management. Sweden recently decided to withdraw $12m (£7.8m) in donations to WHO, reflecting anger among donor nations over the director-general's conduct of its affairs. WHO is entrusted with the fight against Aids and the raising of public-health standards in poor countries.

The row is certain to raise again questions over whether Dr Nakajima is able to lead WHO towards reform and rebuild confidence among donors.

Ambassadors of the Organisation of African Unity, meeting here yesterday, decided to take further soundings among their diplomatic colleagues before deciding on what to do next. Dr Nakajima defeated a highly respected Algerian medical expert, who was endorsed by the OAU, in the 1993 election.

Ironically, the director-general's eccentric command of English and French is often cited by critics as a major cause of his failure to communicate effectively within WHO and on behalf of it.

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