WHO Budget Commitments Disappoint Global Health Advocates

WHO Watchers in Geneva

Fran Quigley, in Geneva

The election of Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus as the new director-general of the World Health Organization has dominated the news from the 70th World Health Assembly. But, arguably, it was not the most important decision the delegates have made here. The WHA yesterday approved a two-year program budget, which may determine if Dr. Tedros and the global team he will soon lead can make significant strides in accomplishing the mission he has laid out for them: make health a realized human right.

Last year the UN High-Level Panel on the Global Response to Health Crises, brought together to make recommendations in the wake of the 2014 Ebola outbreak, recommended that member states increase their contributions to the WHO budget by 10%. Unfortunately, the WHA delegates yesterday approved a budget that increases assessed contributions by only 3%.

Gargeya Telakapalli, one of a dozen WHO Watchers at the WHA, is not impressed, claiming “3% is basically nothing, if you factor in inflation.” The WGO Watchers are young global health advocates working through People’s Health Movement and Medicus Mundi International. They have been trained to research, report (check out their impressively comprehensive and up-to-date WHO Tracker here) and advocate on global health issues to the Assembly.

The People’s Health Movement position on the WHO budget is quite clear: “WHO’s total budget is ridiculously small in comparison with the needs it faces and its outcomes potential.”

In a conversation outside the Palais de Nations where the WHA is convening, Telakapalli’s colleague Renée de Jong pushes over her laptop screen to show a bar graph that illustrates WHO’s financial problem. WHO leadership has flexibility to direct assessed contributions toward the collective priorities of its member states, she explains. But the graph shows that those contributions are only about 20% of its budget, with the balance coming from voluntary contributions with strings attached that reflect the priorities of the donors. “Some countries prefer to earmark their contributions so they go where they want to,” de Jong says. “If every country decides what they will support or starve, it gives them power.” And it gives WHO leadership headaches, as most of its funds are tied up with donors’ priorities, not the priorities of the overall global community.

The demise of the proposed 10% increase in assessed contributions means that one of Dr. Tedros’ first priorities is to raise funds through voluntary contributions, and to work to ensure that those dollars can go to the greatest needs. We have our own task, too, says Telakapalli. “Civil society needs to now put pressure on their own countries to fully fund health initiatives domestically, and to support WHO internationally.”

Fran Quigley is a clinical professor and director of the Health and Human Rights Clinic at Indiana University McKinney School of Law. He is the Health and Human Rights Journal correspondent at the World Health Assembly, May 2017.