What’s ailing the World Health Organisation?

While the politicisation of the WHO remains a serious concern, it also presents an opportunity to rethink the underpinnings of the broader global governance architecture.

WHO, World Health Organisation, COVID-19 pandemic, COVID-19, UN Human Right Council, politicisation, UN, International Health Regulations, Covid outbreak

Jernej Furman — © Flickr/CC BY 2.0

The world is currently reeling under its biggest crisis since World War II. The COVID-19 pandemic has escalated to catastrophic proportions and threatens to do irreversible damage to global economy, trade, health and development. As countries scramble to implement policies to balance both health and economic imperatives, the actions of the World Health Organisation (WHO) — viewed as the first responder to a global disease outbreak — has come under increasing scrutiny.

A brief timeline of the events leading to the pandemic outlines the purported sluggish response of the WHO to the crisis. The offending counts include, inter alia, delay in naming COVID-19 as a “public health emergency of international concern” (PHEIC) and subsequently, a “pandemic”; vacillation in visiting China to survey the situation; delay in acknowledging human-to-human transmission of the virus; not endorsing the use of trade and travel restrictions; an erroneous appreciation of China’s swift response; and the alleged lack of independence of current WHO Director General (DG), Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

These developments have fueled observers to suspect Beijing’s influence on the organisation, and raises questions regarding the politicisation of the WHO. Against this backdrop, this article examines WHO’s institutional underpinnings, its funding, organisational structure — and how these factors together may have contributed to weakening the position of the WHO vis-à-vis its member states.

WHO: Genesis, structure and funding

The WHO was established in 1948 as a United Nations (UN) specialised agency. The potential for spread of diseases due to globalisation, mobility and urbanisation called for the need to create a global institution to expand international health cooperation. The WHO originated in the complex geopolitical environment of the Cold War era, when tensions between the US and the Soviet Union obstructed the realisation of an ideal vision of the WHO. As such, the WHO remained largely subordinate to the United Nations (UN), and was a low-level technical organisation, with limited powers and limited funding.

The WHO originated in the complex geopolitical environment of the Cold War era, when tensions between the US and the Soviet Union obstructed the realisation of an ideal vision of the WHO.

The organisation’s goal, enshrined in Article 1 of the WHO constitution, is to attain “the highest possible level health by all peoples.” Article 2 prescribes 22 functions for the WHO, which also includes “stimulating or advancing work to eradicate epidemic, endemic and other diseases.” The organisation has a three-tiered structure, comprising:

• The World Health Assembly (WHA), the supreme decision making comprising all member states to determine policy direction;

• The 34-member Executive Board, comprising technical experts to oversee the implementation of WHA’s decisions; and

• The Secretariat — headed by the Director General — functioning as WHO’s administrative and technical organ with the overall responsibility for implementing its activities.

The WHO is funded through a system of assessed and voluntary contributions. Assessed contributions are paid by all member states, and are calculated on the basis of a country’s gross national product and population. Voluntary contributions, on the other hand, are amounts voluntarily paid by other UN organisations, private companies, individuals, NGOs as well as member states. While assessed contributions (17% of WHO funds) cover general expenses and program activities, voluntary contributions (80% of WHO funds) are earmarked by donors for specific activities.

The US is the WHO’s largest contributor; it paid a total of $893 million in both assessed and voluntary contributions in 2019. At 22% ($234 million), it has the highest share among assessed contributions of all member states. On the other hand, China’s total contribution stands at $85 million (only 0.21% of WHO’s entire revenue), and its assessed contribution stands at 12% ($75 million). Though China’s funding to the WHO has grown by 52% since 2014, this is primarily due to a sharp increase in the calculation of its assessed contributions, which stood at 5.1% ($48 million) in 2014-15 and increased to 12% as of today.

Dr. Tedros, a former Ethiopian minister of health and minister of foreign affairs, is said to have won the 2017 WHO DG elections with backing from Beijing.

Given China’s still limited funding to the WHO, it is Dr Tedros’ close ties with China that has been the focus of global outrage. Dr. Tedros, a former Ethiopian minister of health and minister of foreign affairs, is said to have won the 2017 WHO DG elections with backing from Beijing. Following his election, he committed to endorsing the “One China” principle, leading to Taiwan’s exclusion from the WHO. As concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic were mounting, Tedros met President Xi Jinping in Beijing on 28 January, and praised the Chinese leadership for “setting a new standard for outbreak control” and its “openness to sharing information.” This was viewed as being highly deferential to China, when there was mounting evidence of concealment of the outbreak.

Broadly, the WHO’s powers are recommendatory in nature and include proposing conventions, agreements, public health practices and international nomenclatures. Provisions of WHO’s constitution, such its role to “assist” governments when requested [Article 2(c)], furnish “technical assistance” on request or acceptance of governments [Article 2(d)], or giving full power to the WHA to control the organisation’s budget, impose politico-legal constraints on its authority and autonomy, and establish a relatively compliant and subservient international organisation.

The organisation’s responsibilities during a pandemic include surveillance, monitoring and evaluation, developing guidance for member states. There is no single document which comprehensively describes its responsibilities, obligations and powers with respect to infectious diseases. A collection of documents, such as treaties and regulations [2005 International Health Regulations (IHR)], WHA resolutions and operational practices explain WHO’s powers in this regard. However, ambiguities persist in relation to its role as between one of coordination and facilitation, as opposed to action or decision making; coupled with a lack of clarity over the division of roles between the WHO and national governments.

Ambiguities persist in relation to its role as between one of coordination and facilitation.

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