Why the WHO's World Health Day leaves little to celebrate

by John O’Connell, chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance


Good Friday was also ‘World Health Day’, apparently. This niche celebration, organised by the World Health Organisation (WHO), proclaims their 75th anniversary with a series of colourful graphics and self-gratifying videos. For the uninitiated, the WHO is one of the international mega-quangos set up after the second world war to usher in an era of cooperation. In this case, on making the human race healthier. 


But, this World Health Day, there’s little reason to celebrate. The WHO continues to be marred by controversy around its toxic relationship to the People’s Republic of China and its divisive handling of the covid pandemic. America dropped out then rejoined the body, while Taiwan is perpetually excluded under pressure from China. What should be a mundane international body - with a goal to improve human health - is getting bogged down in bureaucratic crusades and diplomatic spats. 


One reason this has happened is the politicisation of the wider global quangocracy. International agencies are increasingly engaging in heated ideological debates, with the UN Working Group of Experts of African Descent claiming the UK was systematically racist and the UN high commissioner for refugees attacking British think tank reports. The WHO’s campaign toolkit is a smorgasbord of pointless self-promotion, urging readers to “create a social media plan” to “engage artists, actors, musicians, parliamentarians, sport influencers, NGOs, social media celebrities”, culminating in “walks, marathons, art competitions, debates to generate a dialogue about the health needs of your community.” Practical tips for having a healthy day are in short supply. 


What’s more, actual health outcomes seem of secondary importance. The WHO site calls on member states to “shift from economies driven by profit and pollution to economies driven by fairness and well-being”, demanding they “enable non-State actors to participate in government-led planning, progress reviews or implementation towards universal health coverage.” To the untrained eye, this stuff seems more like training materials for political activists, than anything to do with public health. 


But why should Brits care? Well, the WHO gets some of its funding from British taxpayers. A large amount of funding. The WHO’s contributions database, though now out of date, suggests the UK gave around £320 million ($434,816,000) in 2020-21. 


Firstly there are the assessed contributions (a sort of membership fee), listed as around £31 million ($42,707,000) in 2020-21. Though our assessed fees, calculated by economy size, fall somewhere behind the US, Japan and Germany, our voluntary contributions top the charts.  


The vast majority were specified voluntary contributions, where spending is strictly earmarked and must be spent within a specified timeframe. In theory, this is where the UK government can put its foot down. For example, by specifying that it doesn’t want taxpayers’ cash used on anti-capitalist activism. 


Another chunk were thematic voluntary contributions, which come with a few minor reporting conditions. But the core voluntary contributions, which give the WHO full discretion on how these funds are spent, make up a growing piece of the pie. Indeed the WHO separately trumpets the UK as the single biggest donor of core voluntary contributions in 2020-21, claiming we gave more than the next four biggest donors combined (Sweden, Australia, Netherlands and Denmark), and more than 18 times the amount given by France.   


Taking the WHO data at face value, the UK does retain a say over most of its contributions, with only 27 per cent handed over with no strings attached. But a major theme for the WHO since 2017 (when the current director general came in) has been working out how to shift more money away from countries’ control and into their discretionary funds. In 2020, Boris Johnson was lauded for announcing a huge boost to these funds, raising the UK’s core voluntary contribution by almost one third. 


Now, the membership fees are set to rise. Last year, WHO top dogs announced a potential increase in countries’ assessed contributions by 2030, as they attempt to bring the fees up to match the level of voluntary contributions. According to WHO returns, the UK’s amount already sits at around £32 million ($43,704,420). This is the latest step towards the WHO wanting a bigger chunk of their budget to be dictated by their priorities, not those of the countries that give the money.


Others have rightly warned about the worrying shift at the WHO, away from the member countries towards the Gates Foundation and other private donors. Some have also expressed fears about the WHO’s proposed new pandemic treaty, which is due to be debated in Parliament on 17th April. But regardless of these concerns, it remains the case that British taxpayers have little say over how the money they give to the WHO is used.


International agencies are becoming more political and less accountable. We're watching a power grab at supranational level, having (allegedly) 'taken back control' from Brussels only to see it relocated to New York or Geneva. It's about time we asked more questions and expected more answers from this closed-door global quangocracy. 

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