On Sunday night while finishing my lecture notes for an upcoming class, I checked my twitter feed and read a somewhat surprising headline: “WHO admits it could not cope”. The tweet linked to a piece from the Guardian article that reported on a newly released statement from the WHO’s leadership on the Ebola outbreak and response. In well written, and uncharacteristically strongly worded language the authors laid out lessons learned, areas for improvement, and commitments from the WHO from this and future outbreaks.

I nearly fell off the sofa. It has taken a year, but finally the WHO had finally acknowledged its inability to adequately deal with the outbreak and had admitted its shortcomings. The paragraph that resonated most with me was the last one:

Finally, hold us to account. We commit ourselves to ensuring that the WHO is reformed and well positioned to play its rightful role in disease outbreaks and in global health security generally. Some have said the world needs a new organization to be created. We agree, and we want WHO to be that organization.

I thought it was too good to be true. There is growing awareness within the development community that admitting failure is an important step in the process of learning from it. By using strong and clear language the WHO’s Leadership had decided to take a new approach to dealing with the criticisms of its Ebola response and acknowledge it should be held accountable for its missteps.

Sadly, this statement was too good to be true. By Monday morning, the WHO posted a “corrected” version of its statement on its website.* The same paragraph quoted above now reads:

This is our commitment; together we will ensure that WHO is reformed and well positioned to play its rightful role in disease outbreaks, humanitarian emergencies and in global health security.

Accountability is a hot buzzword in global health these days. I’ve noticed its appearance in more and more reports and statements over the past few years. There are even whole commissions dedicated to ensuring that there is more accountability in global health.

Of course, accountability is simply a word and like all good words it tends to get misused. To some the word seems to indicate something as simple as one’s ability to measure progress. I think the word, however, means a much stronger concept, namely taking responsibility for one’s actions. The logic goes: if no one is responsible for poor performance, then no one will have the incentive to make improvements.

For whatever reason, it seems there was a mix up in the WHO communications office this weekend. The first statement represented an early draft and not the finalized or corrected version. But in so many ways, I think this communication failure parallels other failures the organization has made this year in its handling of the Ebola outbreak.

Language matters. This correction highlights the WHO’s reluctance to use strong words – rather it prefers to set a more diplomatic tone, perhaps afraid to upset any of its partners. This same reluctance may have been part of the reason it took so long for the WHO to declare the outbreak a public health emergency – it was afraid to make anyone upset. Sure, as the WHO has tried to argue recently, responding to an outbreak and declaring it a public health emergency are two different things, but without its leadership last summer, too much time passed before the world realized how serious the situation had become which hampered a timely and effective response.

The WHO has still not been able to admit that it – not national governments, not the WHO regional office, not the CDC – was responsible for declaring the outbreak a public health emergency. Specifically it was the Director General’s job – and no one else’s – to make the call. For whatever reason, this did not happen. The organization failed and it should admit this – and not retract it. Only then can we can start to learn how to prevent failures like this from happening again.

In the end, I will not be surprised if someone within the WHO’s communication office is going to be held accountable for this mistake. Unfortunately, I don’t think it will be the employee who most deserves to be held responsible.

* Note, it was not until Tuesday that the WHO posted an asterisk, just like this one, in which it admitted that it had heavily edited or “corrected” its statement on April 20, 2015.

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