#33 The G|O Briefing, January 26, 2021

#33 The G|O Briefing, January 26, 2021

WHO: The pandemic is a massive stress test on the organization's finances | A glimmer of hope on the job front

This is an onsite, slightly edited republication of the complete G|O Briefing newsletter

Today in The Geneva Observer, once again, we return to the question of the World Health Organization's financing. The pandemic is a massive stress test on the organization. WHO is faced with the daunting task of responding to the pandemic while simultaneously grappling with its long-delayed structural reforms. Tensions flared up again during the current session of its Executive Board Meeting. And the agency is getting hit with criticism from countries questioning its transparency, its decision-making process, and how it launches some of its more ambitious initiatives, such as the recent and controversial, WHO Foundation.

Pressure is building: what was said behind closed doors is now stated publicly.

Criticism has mostly been expressed in a quiet diplomatic way: in closed-door meetings, WHO's directors have been put on notice that consultations about the Foundation's progress and actions are not being held in a satisfactory way. But some countries have decided to increase the pressure by going public, using the pulpit of the Executive Board meeting to put pressure on WHO. During last week's meeting, ambassadors from the UK, China, Spain, and others took the floor to request explanations and to express their concerns regarding the WHO Foundation.

Two years in the making, it was launched in May of last year to allow WHO to broaden its funding base, with the aim to raise $1 billion by 2023. But instead of tapping countries or organizations with Global Health as their primary mission, the WHO Foundation seeks funding from high-net-worth individuals and philanthropists and private sector companies.

When announcing its launch, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, “It is well documented that one of the greatest threats to WHO's success is the fact that less than 20% of our budget comes in the form of flexible assessed contributions from Member States, while more than 80%is voluntary contributions, from Member States and other donors, which are usually tightly earmarked for specific programs. In effect, that means WHO has little discretion over the way it spends its funds, almost 80% of its funds.”


Headquartered in Geneva, the Foundation wants to support global public health needs by providing funds to WHO to deliver on the Organization's "triple billion" goals: protect 1 billion people from health emergencies, extend universal health coverage to 1 billion people, and ensure healthy lives and wellbeing to 1 billion people by 2023.

The Foundation Board Chairman, former Swiss official Thomas Zeltner, is highly regarded in the health community. WHO's D-G closest advisor Professor Senait Fisseha also sits on the Foundation's Board. Anil Soni, a global health expert with a career in both the public and private sector, became CEO of the Foundation on January 1, 2021.

Will pharma be able to influence where the money will be spent?

But many questions remained unanswered

What will happen if pharmaceutical industries decide to contribute? Will they be able to influence where the money will be spent? Will that buy them a place at the table? How will member states be able to control and decide on the fate of the resources?
One of the most vocal criticisms came from the United Kingdom.

The government's representatives lament the lack of a vision on how this initiative would fit in a more general plan for the WHO in the next years. “We would like to underline the need for transparency on all such new initiatives and their inclusion in a clear transformation strategy or plan to pre-empt such surprises in the future,” British diplomats stated.

China expressed a concern echoed by others: how will the regular budget of the WHO be impacted or influenced by the disbursement of money by the Foundation? “Would the budget increase affect the overall level of assessed contributions? What is the relationship between the WHO Foundation and the regular budget?” Beijing asks.

While Spain applauded the establishment of a working group responsible for making specific proposals on the financial sustainability of the WHO, it argued that the group also be in charge of “defining the role that should be played by the WHO Foundation.” In other words: countries should be consulted on the new mechanism.

WHO insiders tell The G|O that the pressure on the Foundation is also meant to ensure better coordination between WHO and the member states around the initiatives pushed by Dr Tedros. Last week, he addressed some of the critics by admitting a “communication gap.” “These initiatives were announced in 2018 and officially in March 2019,” he said. “All regional directors were involved, and then we announced the WHO Foundation and the WHO Academy, among others,” Tedros defended himself.


“The Future of America will be made in America ,announced Joe Biden yesterday as he signed an executive order strengthening Buy American Provisions. The political move was expected. It may, however, not sit well with the WTO and also lead to potential rifts with U.S. allies.

Already in November, several members of the WTO's plurilateral Government Procurement Agreement (GPA), including the European Union, Canada, Japan, the United Kingdom, Korea, Australia, Israel, Hong Kong, and Switzerland, filed objections against the “buy national” initiative notified by the outgoing Trump administration.

It is not clear at this point if the Biden plan would include the provision included by the Trump administration to remove from GPA coverage any goods deemed necessary for responding to public health emergencies, including COVID-19. Sources close to the issue tell The G|O that if the matter is not resolved in consultations, the GPA members that have filed objections “are entitled to seek compensation by invoking arbitration procedures.”

Trade diplomats have long voiced concerns that “buy national” provisions may become a more contentious trade issue under the Biden administration and its tough stance on procurement policies. US trading partners have long seen such “buy American” provisions as an effort to prevent access to the American markets by foreign companies.

Two important reports, one from the ILO and one from OXFAM. Both paint a grim picture on the job front.

If facing facts and accepting the truth are calls to action, then the simultaneous release on Monday of two reports, one from the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the other from British anti-poverty NGO OXFAM, provide ample incentives to keep pressing for change and action.

In its latest report, the ILO states that the COVID-19 pandemic meant the disappearance of the equivalent of 225 million full-time jobs around the world last year. Putting things in perspective compared to previous major crises, ILO’s D-G Guy Ryder said that the COVID-19 crisis “has been the most severe crisis for the world of work since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Its impact is far greater than that of the global financial crisis of 2009.”

Amid the wreckage, a glimmer of hope.

“Job destruction has disproportionately affected low-paid and low‑skilled jobs,” which “points to the risk of an uneven recovery, leading to still greater inequality in the coming years,” the ILO reported. The UN agency describes “unprecedented disruption” among global labor markets.   Women and young people have felt the worst impact. Globally, women saw 5 percent employment loss in 2020, as opposed to 3.9 percent for men, with the food and accommodation sectors being the hardest hit. “Particularly concerning” for Guy Ryder was the fact that “81 million people have simply dropped out of the labour market. Either they are unable to work, perhaps because of pandemic restrictions or social obligations, or they have given up looking for work.”

However, he also offered some glimmer of hope:

“I am pleased to say that there is some relatively good news in all of this, that we do see tentative signs of recovery—these signs are fragile, they are uncertain, and the prospects are notably uneven,” he said.

“There are some sectors—there are the financial sectors, the information technology sectors—which have actually continued to grow in the course of 2020,” Ryder said.

During the same period, the British charity Oxfam reports that the combined wealth of the world’s 10 richest people has increased by more than $500 billion since the beginning of the pandemic—a jump due to the growth of the financial and technology sectors. Dubbing COVID-19 the “Inequality Virus,” it points out that $500 billion would be more than enough to vaccinate the entire planet.
Over the last few years, Oxfam has made it a tradition to publish its report on the same day of the WEF’s annual meeting opening, which is taking place virtually this year. In 2019, Dutch historian Rutger Bregman berated the 1% for not paying their fair share in taxes, creating huge controversy among the well-heeled attendees in Davos. He won’t be there this year. His words, unfortunately, have even more resonance today.

Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz - Jamil Chade - John Zarocostas - Edited by: Paige Holt