World Health Organisation - Covid-19 Storm Clouds

, by René Wadlow

The widespread consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic has led to analysis of preparations and actions at the local, national and international level. Here we will consider only the international level and in particular the discussions concerning the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO). The efforts of the European Union and individual European countries also merits attention.

The WHO was created on the basis of the League of Nations Health Organization established in 1923 and which functioned until 1939. There was also the experience of the Pan American Sanatary Bureau, which had begun in 1902. The WHO’s headquarters are in Geneva, and there was cooperation dating from the League days with the International Committee of the Red Cross as well as with private foundations concerned with health such as the Rockefeller Foundation. Today, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation plays an important role in financing global health projects and research.

WHO came into force in April 1948 when the required 26 States had ratified. Brock Chrisholm of Canada was the first Director-General and gave the organization its reputation for strong leadership from the Secretariat. Strong leadership has carried over to the WHO’s semiautonomous regional offices. Dr Geo Harlem Brundland, a former Prime Minister of Norway become Director-General in 1998 is an example of this strong leadership tradition. A strong leader can work to distance the politics of the organization from its technical work and can draw attention to specific issues.

The 194 WHO members are expected to donate a specific percentage of the overall budget, known as "assessed contributions" based on a formula designed on the country’s ability to pay. In addition, there are "voluntary contributions" usually to provide funds for specific projects or health campaigns such as responding to HIV/AIDS, vaccine distribution and maternal health care.

At the time of the creation of WHO, other UN Specialized Agencies and the UN as a whole, the United States of America (USA) had the strongest economy and its territory had not been directly damaged by the Second World War. Thus the U.S. Assessed contribution is high as have been the U.S. government voluntary contributions as well as private U.S. foundations.

Finance gives political power, both to influence programs and to "veto" certain efforts such as birth control efforts. Finance also gives influence in the selection of staff. Such is the reality of international organization life. If we look at the history of the U.N. Specialized Agencies, we see that the U.S., the USSR, Japan, and increasingly China have used their political-economic power to try to influence the work of U.N. agencies, sometime behind the scenes, at other times, more openly.

The current U.S. President Donald Trump is not a "behind the scenes» player. His decision to withhold U.S. funding to WHO pending a review of the WHO’s handling of the Coronavirus pandemic was ill-timed and might seriously undermine the needed world-wide cooperative effort. This first threat has been followed on 29 May 2020 when President Trump announced that «We will today be terminating our relationship with WHO" However he added that U.S. funding would be redirected to other public health efforts.

U.S. criticism undermines the authority of the current Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus who had been Foreign Minister of Ethiopia. His election was actively supported by China, and for his critics he is too friendly to the Chinese positions. However, his experience as Foreign Minister has brought home that one is not critical in public of powerful States.

After each major challenge in the past, the WHO has had an analysis of its responses. Thus the WHO member States participating in this year’s Annual Assembly, being held virtually, adopted a resolution by consensus urging an independent study of the WHO responses to the coronavirus. The resolution proposed by the European Union, calls for an "impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation» of the WHO responses. Such evaluations take place after every major WHO effort. This time more people will pay attention to the results. The WHO, as all large milti-State institutions, has its weaknesses both administrative and as a result of the States’ political influence.

Thus the need for strong non-governmental observations and proposals. Such reinforced non-governmental efforts may be one of the positive consequences of the pandemic.