May 22, 2020
The Geneva Observer
This article is the longer version of our newsletter briefing sent out on Thursday May 21, 2020. Sign up to our newsletter to get our content a day early and straight in your inbox.
WHO hoped the highly anticipated World Health Assembly would be a global show of solidarity in the face of COVID-19. On those terms, it was undeniably a clear success. Things could have gone awfully wrong and they didn’t. The resolution on the global response to coronavirus was adopted by consensus (with only some caveats) and, with the obvious exception of the US President, leaders from around the world lined up to express their support for WHO and call for its strengthening. Trump inadvertently seems to have solidified support around WHO rather than weakened it.
As the dust settles around the assembly, WHO would certainly like to focus on that success, rather than the 30-day ultimatum the US President had announced via tweet he would be giving WHO to "commit to major substantive improvements" or he would reconsider the US' membership.
When Dr Tedros was asked repeatedly at yesterday's press conference (Wednesday May 20, 2020) about the President's threats, the company line was clear: “We have received the letter and we’re looking into it.” Pressed on whether they had any idea what reforms the US was demanding, the head of WHO’s emergencies programme, Dr Mike Ryan, responded tersely: “I think you might want to point that question to them.”
That might prove to be a waste of time. The hard truth is that from the White House down to the State Department, no clear demand has, as of yet, been formulated regarding what “reforms” Washington actually wants. This isn’t exactly surprising as Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo, currently embattled at home, are playing to a strictly domestic audience and following an electoral playbook.
It seems WHO, for its part, is following the standard procedure when Trump has you in his sights: a) in the short term, do not respond if at all possible and hope he forgets and moves on; and b) hope he is removed from office in November and the problem goes away.
WHO’s issues are not going away
WHO’s issues are not going away, however. Strapped for cash at the best of times and with the US (by far its biggest donor) threatening to make the funding freeze permanent, WHO may find the rest of the world’s words of support comforting but insufficient. It will want to capitalise on the moment and translate some of that rhetoric into hard cash and budget reforms.
As Dr Tedros explained yesterday, there are two main issues with WHO’s funding. First, “WHO’s budget is very, very small,” and second, WHO does not have control over where most of the money goes.
WHO’s revenue comes in either as assessed contributions (membership fees) or voluntary contributions from member states and various other donor organisations like large philanthropic organisations (Bill & Melinda Gates foundation, etc.). Now, WHO’s membership fees have been frozen since the nineties, which would be fine but for a little thing called inflation… As it stands, currently less than a fifth of WHO’s revenue comes from these membership fees. The other four fifths come in the form of donations, generally earmarked for specific programmes by the donors themselves. In sum, WHO doesn’t have control of what most of its money is spent on, curtailing its ability to act autonomously and proactively; its agenda is de facto set by its donors.
Light in the funding tunnel?
In one of the most forward thinking statements made to the WHA, Swiss President Simonetta Sommaruga alluded to this by urging a rethink of WHO’s financing system. WHO’s funding issues are nothing new. But could US disengagement, and China’s moves to fill the vacuum (and thus increasing its agenda-setting power), be the catalyst for some countries to actually try and change the situation?
Sommaruga’s remarks might point to Switzerland potentially planning to take an active role in a diplomatic effort to push for such systemic reform. A small but representative coalition of like-minded partners with credibility in the multilateral arena might just be able to jump-start an effort. It would be no bad thing…