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Saturday, May 30, 2020

Explained: US-WHO relationship in the past, what could change now

The US, a founding member of the WHO as well as its biggest donor, has long exercised a strong influence over the organisation.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: May 21, 2020 2:18:58 pm
Trump threatens to permanently freeze WHO funding: How much does US pay the body? President Donald Trump threatened to permanently halt funding to the WHO if it did not commit to “substantive” improvements within 30 days. (AP Photo: Evan Vucci)

The Trump administration’s ongoing tirade against the World Health Organization escalated Monday when the US President shot off a letter to WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, in which he claimed the body had shown an “alarming” dependence on China.

“It is clear the repeated missteps by you and your organisation in responding to the pandemic have been extremely costly for the world,” Trump wrote. He threatened to permanently halt funding to the WHO if it did not commit to “substantive” improvements within 30 days, while saying he would reconsider the membership of the United States in the body.

On April 15, Trump had announced that he would halt funding to the WHO as it had mismanaged the coronavirus pandemic. He accused the body of promoting China’s “disinformation” campaign over the outbreak.

While WHO officials have denied the accusation, China said it was being transparent and open.

How much does the US contribute to the WHO?

The WHO is funded by a large number of countries, philanthropic organisations, United Nations organisations etc.

According to information uploaded by the WHO, voluntary donations from member states (such as the US) contribute 35.41 per cent, assessed contributions are 15.66 per cent, philanthropic organisations account for 9.33 per cent, UN organisations contribute about 8.1 per cent; the rest comes from myriad sources.

Source: Date uploaded by WHO

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The US contributes almost 15 per cent of the WHO’s total funding and almost 31 per cent of the member states’ donations, the largest chunk in both cases. India contributes 1 per cent of member states’ donations. Countries decide how much they pay and may also choose not to.

For the WHO, the loss of about 15 per cent of its total funding is bound to have an impact the world over. However, unless other countries do the same as the US, the move may not severely hamstring WHO operations.

What does the WHO do with its funds?

The WHO is involved in various programmes. For example, in 2018-19, 19.36 per cent (about $1 billion) was spent on polio eradication, 8.77 per cent on increasing access to essential health and nutrition services, 7 per cent on vaccine preventable diseases and about 4.36 per cent on prevention and control of outbreaks.

The Africa countries received $1.6 billion for WHO projects; and South East Asia (including India) received $375 million. India is a member state of the WHO South East Asia Region. The Americas received $62.2 million for WHO projects. That is where most of WHO funding comes from and the least of it goes.

How does WHO prioritise spending?

The annual programme of work is passed by WHO’s decision-making body, the World Health Assembly. It is attended by delegates from all member states and focuses on a specific health agenda prepared by the Executive Board. The main functions of the Assembly, held annually in Geneva, are to determine WHO policies, appoint the Director-General, supervise financial policies, and review and approve the proposed programme budget.

Also read | Harsh Vardhan set to be WHO Executive Board chairman: Report

The decisions on money allocation depend on the situation in countries. The WHO’s 13th General Programme of Work (2019-23) lays down: “Unequal development in different countries in the promotion of health and control of diseases, especially communicable diseases, is a common danger.”

Criticism of WHO’s handling of the pandemic

Since it first began handling the coronavirus outbreak, the WHO has faced criticism from various quarters, much before Trump began his offensive.

Some have blamed the UN body for the lavish praise it laid on Chinese efforts to contain the virus, while ignoring reports of whistleblowers being targeted in that country.

It is also criticised for relying on data from China which led it to announce in January that there was no “clear evidence” of human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus — a claim that the body distanced itself from only a week later.

The UN agency is also blamed for its delay in classifying the outbreak as a global pandemic, which it did on March 11.

The US influence over WHO

The US, a founding member of the WHO as well as its biggest donor, has long exercised a strong influence over the organisation. It has played a key role during the 2014 Ebola epidemic, the humanitarian response in Afghanistan and Iraq, combating the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and efforts to eradicate polio and tuberculosis, among several other achievements.

US domestic bodies also partner with the WHO on a range of issues, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) which assists in regional training efforts, and the US Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) which helps regulate essential medicines.

During the Cold War, the US clout caused the Soviet Union and its allies to leave the WHO for several years. The tables now appear to have turned, with the US finding itself at odds with China’s rising sway over the UN body.

If the US ceases to remain a member state, experts say it would be left with much less access to the WHO resources, especially at a time when it is the worst affected by the coronavirus pandemic— both in the number of cases as well as deaths.

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