Brief # 120 – Foreign Policy 

How Effective Are Our Global Organizations?

Part 1 The World Health Organization

By Ailin Goode

June 30, 2021

Policy Summary

As the world continues to struggle with the pandemic and its compounding effects on global inequality, critical eyes have turned to the World Health Organization. Accusations of negligence and political ineptitude against the WHO have gained traction, particularly with the recent appointment of the Syrian government to the Executive Board.

Last year, the Trump administration began the process of withdrawing from the WHO amidst criticism of the way the institution was handling the pandemic. Shortly after President Biden was elected, he reversed this decision and returned the United States to its previous status as one of the most influential and active members in the organization. The administration has noted that cooperation with the WHO does not mean ignoring its shortcomings.

While questions and concerns over China’s influence in the WHO continue and the pandemic threatens the recently reported progress in global health, national and international discourse revolves around the effectiveness of the WHO itself.

Policy Analysis

The World Health Organization was initiated by Brazil and China as part of the development of the United Nations in 1945. Its constitution was ratified in 1948 and it became an internationally recognized global institution. Currently,  WHO is made up of 194 member states and has over 8,000 professionals working with the organization.

According to its constitution, “The objective of the World Health Organization shall be the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health.” This objective has been rephrased over the years. The most recent iteration on their website reads, “Dedicated to the well-being of all people and guided by science, the World Health Organization leads and champions global efforts to give everyone, everywhere an equal chance to live a healthy life.” The WHO goes on to define “health” in terms of mental health, physical well-being, and social security.

This objective has led to the creation and adoption by the member states and other organizations of global initiatives like the 8 Millennium Development Goals – the first time-bound set of global health goals adopted by the organization for implementation from 2000-2015 and the follow-up, Sustainable Development Goals, which are set for 2015-2030. There have also been countless smaller campaigns launched in individual countries.

There are many noteworthy criticisms of  WHO. There are accusations of statistical manipulation designed to inflate the success of some of their initiatives. The research, data collecting, analysis, and reporting cycle that is used to indicate their progress is mostly internal, or at least conducted in conjunction with other organizations connected with the WHO, so it is difficult to find unbiased information regarding their affairs. There are legitimate concerns of reinforcement of social and gender inequality as well as inadequacies in their response to the climate crises, continued human rights abuses, and global conflict. There is also a recent audit that found WHO staff had broken the organization’s rules in order to award a consulting contract to BCG, including changing the bid criteria as well as working with the firm before receiving formal approval.

These are certainly things that should be addressed and managed. It is worth noting that many of the problems within the WHO are reflections of the problems each of its member countries are currently struggling with. A fact that has been evidenced by global protests, a record-breaking heat wave, and the ongoing struggle between data acquisition, big business, and privacy rights.

There is also statistical evidence of  WHO’s success. There was measurable progress made on each of the MDGs. For example   WHO just declared China free from Malaria. WHO’s  organization of the international response to COVID-19 resulted in multiple tools and resources as well as the recent G7 commitment to dose sharing through their COVAX Facility, a co-led program designed to ensure equitable access to information and vaccines.

Global health has been steadily increasing since the formation of  WHO 70 years ago. The exact reasons for this are difficult to determine because of the number of different factors involved. As there continues to be breakthroughs in science, technology, communication, and data acquisition, it makes sense that our understanding of health issues and our ability to address them would also continue to increase.

The effectiveness of  WHO lies in the resources and frameworks it provides for the nation states that are able and willing to do the work, such as The ACT Accelerator or its publications that include everything from technical briefings to risk assessment manuals. It creates tools such as the “WHO Benchmarks for International Health Regulations,” to give countries expert-backed, actionable plans to achieve greater “health security.”It offers one of the largest compilations of health data available that isn’t behind an academic or business pay wall, a significant feat in the age of data monetization.  It consistently researches and analyzes its own initiatives, compiling publicly available insight into the processes and challenges of everything from providing vaccines to education reform.

WHO is not designed to be a politically minded organization. It is a community of scientists, doctors, and world leaders that was created to facilitate ideas, share information, and develop programs and initiatives designed to benefit everyone. All information sharing, participation, and accountability is voluntary on the part of each member state. This means that the strength and success of the organization is the responsibility of every country.  WHO is and will be as effective as its member states are cooperative.

Engagement Resources

Pan American Health Organization – COVID-19 Situation Reports

Volunteer Match – Volunteer opportunities to help fight COVID-19

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