World health chief faces fraud inquiry: Michael Sheridan in Geneva reports on a growing row over the WHO director's re-election tactics (CORRECTED)

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The Independent Online
CORRECTION (PUBLISHED 28 MARCH 1993) APPENDED TO THIS ARTICLE

FRAUD detection experts from the UK's National Audit Office have been called in to examine staff and payment records at the World Health Organisation in Geneva as part of an investigation into the management and re-election campaign of its Japanese director-general, Dr Hiroshi Nakajima.

Countries opposed to Dr Nakajima's rule appear ready to challenge him in May at a vote of WHO's governing body of 183 member states, the World Health Assembly, a step reflecting anger among Western diplomats at the well-funded Japanese effort that won Dr Nakajima re-nomination by 18 votes to 13 at a meeting of WHO's executive council on 20 January. He defeated a challenge from the deputy director-general, Dr Mohamed Abdelmoumene of Algeria, who was supported by Britain, the US and most European countries.

Normally, the renomination assures the incumbent of an unopposed election. But evidence that some council members who voted for Dr Nakajima received lucrative WHO contracts, in apparent breach of normal procedures, has prompted a rearguard action by countries which are opposed to his candidacy. There are 31 members of the council, appointed by their governments.

The report by the National Audit Office, the official independent external auditor to WHO, is due to be made public before the election. The issues under examination by the NAO include:

The award of a WHO contract for dollars 130,000 (pounds 91,000) to the council member from the Philippines, who voted for Dr Nakajima, to produce a history of health care in his country since the mid-1980s. A WHO internal auditor's memo to Dr Nakajima termed the payment 'quite deplorable' and in breach of WHO regulations.

The award of a WHO contract for dollars 40,000 to the chief medical officer of Sierra Leone, a council member who also voted for Dr Nakajima, although the Sierra Leone government, in line with policy agreed among African states, had instructed him to vote for a Nigerian candidate, Ilikoyo Ransome-Kuti. As a result, diplomats say, he has lost his job in Sierra Leone and Dr Nakajima has ordered bureaucrats within WHO to find him a senior post.

The award of another WHO contract for dollars 21,000 to the delegate from the Seychelles, who also voted for Dr Nakajima, to produce a 'review of health manpower' in the island state.

There are also questions about how Dr Nakajima used WHO's time and funds to travel widely in pursuit of his re-election campaign, at a time when WHO was supposed to be leading the global war against Aids and fighting for an increase in its own budget of dollars 800m.

Official WHO travel records examined by the Independent on Sunday show that in the critical pre-election period from 15 March to 31 December 1992, Dr Nakajima spent only 38 days in Geneva, and not all of those were working days.

Normally flying first class, Dr Nakajima went to Sao Tome, Senegal, Bulgaria, Mexico (twice), Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Philippines, China (twice), France, Spain, Cuba, Iran, Swaziland, Russia, the Maldives, Tunisia, Ethiopia, Brazil and Japan (six times). On three occasions, he travelled on Concorde.

None of this travel and expenditure would be prone to challenge were it not for the dismay among senior WHO officials over Dr Nakajima's leadership performance, and the belief among many diplomats that electioneering, not health, had dictated his schedule.

Spokesmen for Dr Nakajima, as well as Japanese diplomats, maintain there was nothing wrong with his campaign. They say the complainants are simply bad losers and, privately, they hint at anti-Japanese prejudice.

The countries that wanted Dr Nakajima out believe that his renomination was the fruit of vote-buying and coercive diplomacy. They describe him as an ineffective administrator who is poor at communication and prone to pack the WHO bureaucracy with time-servers and people linked to his power base at home in Japan.

One example they cite is that of Yugi Kawaguchi, WHO's director of planning, co-ordination and co-operation. He is said to be the son-in-law of the tycoon Ryoishi Sasekawa, a leading power broker in Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, who is regarded as Dr Nakajima's patron. The influence of Mr Sasekawa explains why Japan's normally reticent diplomatic machine went into overdrive in order to secure Dr Nakajima's renomination.

A spokesman for Dr Nakajima said on Friday: 'I can confirm that the team of external auditors are in . . . they are leaving no stone unturned. They are investigating not only the specific allegations . . . they will investigate every contract of every type, every research grant, temporary contract, signed with any individual or any institution of the 31 nationalities represented on the board.' The spokesman said the findings would be made public before the vote on Dr Nakajima's re-election.

CORRECTION

Yuji Kawaguchi of the World Health Organisation has asked us to point out that he is not Ryoichi Sasakawa's son-in-law, as was incorrectly reported in the Independent on Sunday on 28 February.

(Photograph omitted)

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