By: Callum McGoldrick, intern at the TaxPayers' Alliance
The World Health Organisation (WHO) was founded in 1948, its focus was on the monitoring and prevention of the prevalent diseases of the day, notably malaria and tuberculosis. Unlike many of the quangos which emerged at the end of the second world war, there is still a space for the WHO in achieving their founding goals given the remaining prevalence of devastating diseases in much of the world. Unfortunately however, this has not stopped the WHO from changing for the worse since its founding, albeit in different ways than other quangos. The WHO has undoubtedly become politicised, harming both its reputation and ability to provide the services required. Nobody involved in the founding of the WHO would have expected that in the year 2023 the body would be preparing for its first traditional medicine summit.
The WHO has a long, and often successful, history working across the globe and with nations of every political persuasion, most famously fostering cooperation between the US and USSR to eliminate smallpox. It would now seem that this level of action and cooperation is dead however, thanks largely to the WHO itself. The organisation has been criticised for acting in a politicised manner by seemingly all sides. The most prominent of these criticisms have come from China who urged the WHO to “return to a scientific and impartial stance” as well as the United States under the Trump administration who said the WHO “really blew the COVID response”.
The problem of politicisation has been exacerbated by the current Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Tedros became head of the organisation in 2017 after a campaign backed largely by African and Asian countries who are strongly influenced by China. Tedros has controversially chimed in on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, claiming that the attention given to Ukraine is racist. Remarkably, Tedros also chose Robert Mugabe to be a WHO goodwill ambassador before rescinding the move under international pressure.
As a result of this, the WHO is unable, or at least severely less likely, to be able to perform its original primary function. When reviewing the success of the smallpox vaccine, it is clear to see the evolution in modus operandi. The WHO once acted as a mediator between the US and USSR, providing a platform for discourse and serving as the impartial distributor of the vaccines. In more recent years, they have attempted to thrust policies on national governments, acting more as decision makers rather than a platform for cooperation. The WHO has attempted to argue that its loss of effectiveness is as a result of increasing nationalism across the globe., This is hard to square with the fact that even Nazi Germany, probably the most aggressively nationalistic country in history, worked with international epidemiological organisations as late as 1939.
A prime example of the WHO attempting to act in place of government can be seen with their ‘Pandemic Preparedness Treaty’. While many of the stated goals of the treaty would seem to be a return to the objectives of the founding of the WHO, such as ‘enhancing international cooperation’, a scratch beneath the surface suggests that the WHO are seeking to make national governments subservient to the World Health Assembly. While some have claimed that there will be no impact on national sovereignty, parts of a proposed treaty contain sections surrounding “strengthening WHO authority” and granting the WHO increased powers to declare a global health emergency.
The failures of the WHO lie almost entirely with their attempts to shift their focus from being a platform for cooperation to operating as the lone supremo on global health. The biggest strength of a decentralised system with regional authorities in power is that each region can get a tailored response led by experts familiar with the local situation. Put simply, what works for one country will not always work for another and a system led by a centralised authority will only undermine those regional experts. A prime example of this can be seen with the impact of COVID guidelines in The Gambia. Lockdowns and social distancing, while irritating and harmful in many ways in the West, were utterly devastating in less developed countries where many livelihoods still depend on agrarian jobs which cannot be done from the comfort of home. The desperation caused by the complete economic shutdown in The Gambia led to a mass exodus of pupils from schools, and in particular female students, in many cases so that parents could raise funds through dowries. Every country needs to have the power over its own response to events of all scales. Granting murky global bodies huge amounts of control and influence will only ever end badly.
The UK was the largest donator to the ‘WHO Core Voluntary Contributions Account’ in 2021 with a total of $135 million. Astoundingly, this made up less than a quarter of the UK’s overall contribution. According to the WHO, 10 per cent of this money was spent on pandemic prevention programmes, such as the one detailed previously. Further millions were also spent on promoting WHO policies across the globe and their own administrative costs. While the WHO may have had some positive impacts during COVID, many of the key breakthroughs came via private companies with heavy funding from British and American taxpayers. Much of the money spent on the WHO would likely see more value if it would be directly spent on addressing the issues at hand rather than funding an organisation that can no longer act as the neutral platform for cooperation it once was.