World Health Organization (WHO)

  • World Health Organization (WHO) is grappling with its greatest crisis, faced with criticism over its initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • This crisis has further been strengthened by United States funding cut. The U.S. contributes around 15% of WHO budget.


  • WHO was established in 1948 and there hasn’t been a worldwide pandemic with this kind of devastation that has come across its path.
  • WHO had no formal powers to monitor and censure its members. For all the responsibility vested in the WHO, it has little power. Unlike international bodies such as the World Trade Organization, the WHO, which is a specialized body of the UN, has no ability to bind or sanction its members.
  • Its annual operating budget, about $2bn in 2019, is smaller than that of many university hospitals. WHO is dependent on donor funds.
  • Being made scapegoats: Trump, scrambling for an answer to explain why the US now has more cases of coronavirus than any other nation, has alighted upon the WHO and China as his preferred scapegoats


Risk of being criticized as doing too much or too little: During the outbreak of SARC, H1N1, or “swine flu”, the novel influenza virus was discovered in Mexico in 2009, WHO declared a pandemic. The death toll – 18,500 confirmed deaths worldwide –far lower than initially expected “Suddenly question were raised whether the WHO had mistakenly rung the alarm, and “cost huge amounts of money and frightened people unnecessarily”.

  • When the Ebola outbreak struck west Africa in 2014: In contrast to the previous pandemic, this time the WHO was slow to act, and was widely perceived to have lost control of the situation.
  • COVID-19: Biggest pandemic in its history
  • Did not take enough action: The first positive case of Coronavirus was detected in Wuhan, China on 17 November 2019, however, it wasn’t until 31 December 2019 that China reported these to the World Health Organisation. WHO didn’t send experts to Wuhan to get an independent view. They were only relying on the Chinese view.
  •  Statements making praise of China: Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in China, World Health Organization (WHO) officials consistently praised the country for its efforts in containing the spread of the disease.
  • Slow response: As late as on 11 March, World Health Organisation (WHO), declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic.
  • Poorly informed suggestions such as there is no need for healthy people to wear face masks.


  • Constitutional problem with all UN agencies that the head of the agency who is elected with support of powerful member states, does not enjoy the independence and autonomy that should come with a position of that stature.
  • Re-election: Two terms of five is normal practice. If we were, for example, to adopt a policy of a single non- renewable term for maybe six or seven years, then you might actually give a leader authority to take certain independent actions.
  • WHO is not larger or more powerful than its member states. Just as Israel denied a UN team access to occupied territories, India has refused permission to some UN observers to go to Kashmir and so on, countries have the right to do that.

Funding Challenge:

  • Shrinking financial resources as the 2019 annual operating budget was only $2bn.
  • Rising donor dependency as funding is skewed towards voluntary contribution, only 30% of budget is under WHO control.
  • Complex organization structure giving rise to tensions between headquarters and regional offices.
  • Lack of appropriate accountability mechanisms to address wrongful acts or omissions by the organization when they occur.
  • Body lacks adequate decision-making power, any decisions or amendments to its constitution, requires two-thirds majority of members present and voting.
  • Lack formal powers to monitor and censure its members in case of non-adherence like other international bodies such as WTO.


  • Setting a clear direction and mandate for the future of WHO and its Secretariat.
  • Increasing flexible funding arrangements that allows WHO to be agile and strategic in efforts to achieve its targets by linking financing to value delivery.
  • Outsource functions to other global agencies. Ex. the GAVI-Alliance that hold expertise, to allow WHO to be able to focus more on its core areas and larger leadership roles.
  • Leveraging expertise that exists by unlocking the potential of WHO’s Framework of Engagement with Non-State Actors (FENSA).
  • Enhanced autonomy balanced with adequate in-built accountability and transparency mechanisms.
  • Focus on capacity building and strengthening of leadership skills.


While the politicisation of the WHO remains a serious concern, it also presents an opportunity to rethink the underpinnings of the broader global governance architecture. Great power politics has always shaped global institutional evolution, but the crumbling edifice of extant institutional framework should alert us to the very real possibility that time is running out for the creation of viable and effective new international organisations.

If not rectified and responded to with a sense of urgency, global governance architecture might witness unprecedented fragmentation at precisely the time when it is most needed. And that would be a travesty for the most vulnerable and weak nations of the world.

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