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Is The World Health Organization (WHO) Leveraging the Pandemic (COVID-19) to Boost Funding?

Photo by Anna Shvets.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) was first established in 1948 but I'm willing to bet the average citizen in most countries had never heard (or were only vaguely aware) of it until the first quarter of 2020 when the global pandemic, COVID-19, began to emerge as a world wide concern.

As you would expect one of the main goals of WHO is to improve the health of world populations, which it does through its Universal Health Coverage target.

Its two other major targets are:

  • Better protected people from health emergencies.
  • People enjoying better health and well-being.

Each of these three targets aspire to benefiting at least one billion MORE people over a five year period, at which time the strategy is evaluated, reviewed, revised, and reimplemented for the next five years, and so on (I presume). Note that 'more' is important because the overall target is to deliver better health to ALL and not just the same one billion people.

The organisation is funded through member state Assessed Contributions (a percentage of a country’s Gross Domestic Product), basically a membership fee. These fees account for less than 20% of the organisation's total funding.

The rest of their funding comes from Voluntary Contributions, mostly from member states (in addition to their Assessed Contribution), and other partners. There are three levels of voluntary contributions:

  • Core voluntary contributions (CVC) (3.9%)- fully flexible funding with no conditions attached.
  • Thematic and strategic engagement funds (6%) - partially flexible funding that, generally, has stricter guidelines around reporting and accountability to meet contributor's requirements.
  • Specified voluntary contributions (90.1%) - these funds are earmarked to specific programmatic areas and/or geographical locations and must be spent within a specified timeframe.

It's in the area of Voluntary Contributions things get a bit murky (not helped by WHO's website collapsing a part of their VC funding section so you may miss the conditional funding headings) leaving WHO open to conspiracy theorists about who is pulling their strings.

However, if you go to their Budget Portal you can pretty much see all their contributors and percentage contributions (there's actually a very interactive chart that lets you search for contributors by name... go on... I know you're itching to search 'Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation' right now aren't you!).

You may wonder what all this preamble is leading to?

I've noticed that, as countries are starting to relax restrictions on COVID-19, such as mask wearing and QR code tracking. WHO, and particularly WHO's advisory group SAGE (Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization), have been particularly vocal on not easing restrictions too soon, as well as reinforcing the risk of further COVID-19 variants.

While it may be WHO just being over cautious, I'm not the only random person on the internet that's noticed the pandemic has been a huge profile boost for the organization, and is providing some leverage in terms of turning their funding back around to 1980's levels, where 80% of their funding was through Assessed Contributions. As noted in this article, COVID-19 has shown sustainable financing of WHO is needed to deliver health for all.

As far as I'm aware WHO isn't trying to turn the percentages around by reducing Voluntary Contributions (which would be ridiculous policy). Rather they're trying to justify bumping up Assessed Contribution fees by a considerable amount (from 20% to 50% currently, as proposed by member states). That would be a major funding increase (though inevitably it may still reduce Voluntary Contributions).

If WHO once again moves out of the public spotlight too soon, maybe their funding goals won't be as easy to achieve?

I'm not a conspiracy theorist by any means but I do understand that no organization is above questionable, strategic tactics (just look at how Donald Trump tried to pull all US funding from WHO during his Presidency). 

WHO wants countries to 'get back to normal' but maybe not too quickly? Memories can be short when it comes to global funding, especially funding that the contributor has no control of once handed over.

So far we haven't really heard about another major global variant of COVID-19 after Omicron, and in many countries the curve of new daily cases is on a downward trend. That's not to say we're out of the pandemic but maybe more countries are just better equipped to manage it two years on (you would hope so, right?).

If WHO really wants to make a case for increased funding and global collaboration on health, rather than scaring us with a possible 'next wave' of some COVID-19 variant, maybe they should focus more on how their recommendations, and advice, have succeeded. Showcase more of their achievements in overcoming the pandemic rather than issuing warnings and speculation of possible catastrophes that could be around the corner.

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