Trumping the World Health Organization—what does it mean?

We all know Donald Trump is impulsive. His sudden decision to stop funding the World Health Organization just days after calling it “very China-centric” and “wrong about a lot of things” is the latest example. And this in the midst of the worst global pandemic since Spanish flu in 1918 and a looming economic crisis compared by some to the 1930s. 

But the decision is not really just about what WHO might or might not have done wrong. It is more about the ongoing geopolitical wrangle between the US and China, and about diverting attention from US failings in its own response to covid-19 in the run-up to the US presidential election. It clearly also derives from Trump’s deep antipathy to almost any multilateral organization. WHO has been chosen as the fall guy in this political maelstrom in a way that might please Trump’s supporters who will have read or heard little about WHO’s role in tackling this crisis. And the decision has been widely condemned in almost all other countries and by many in the US.

So what is it likely to mean in practice for WHO? Calling a halt to funding for an unspecified time is an unsatisfactory half-way house. A so-called fact sheet put out by the White House talks about the reforms it thinks necessary “before the organization can be trusted again.” This rather implies that the US wants to remain a member of WHO if it can achieve the changes it wants. Whether those changes are feasible is another question—they include holding member states accountable for accurate data sharing and countering “China’s outsize influence on the organization.” Trump said the funding halt would last while WHO’s mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic was investigated, which would take 60-90 days. 

The US is the single largest funder of WHO, providing about 16% of its budget. It provides funds to WHO in two ways. The first is the assessed contribution—the subscription each country pays to be a member. In 2018/19 the US contribution should have been $237 million, but as of January this year it was in arrears by about $200 million. Much bigger are US voluntary contributions provided to WHO for specified activities amounting in the same period to another $650 million. These are for a wide variety of projects—over a quarter goes to polio eradication, but a significant portion also is for WHO’s emergency work. 

The US assessed contribution represents only 4% of WHO’s budget. Losing that would certainly be a blow to WHO but a manageable one. Given the arrears situation it is not certain that the US would have paid any of this in the next three months in any case. 

More serious would be losing the US voluntary contributions which account for about another 12% of WHO’s budget—but whether this could be halted all at once is very unclear. First Congress allocates funds in the US, not the President, raising questions about how a halt could be engineered domestically. Secondly, US contributions to WHO come from about 10 different US government agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health or USAID, each of whom have separate agreements with WHO. Will they be prepared to cut funding for ongoing projects with WHO? And does the US want to disrupt ongoing programmes such as polio eradication and, indeed, emergency response which contribute to saving lives? 

Given the President’s ability to do 180 degree U-turns we shall have to wait and see what will actually happen in the medium term. If it presages the US leaving WHO, this would only facilitate growing Chinese influence in the WHO and other UN bodies. Perhaps in the end wiser advice will be heeded and a viable solution found.

Most of President Trump’s criticisms of WHO do not bear close scrutiny. WHO may have made mistakes—it may have given too much credence to information coming from the Chinese. China has just announced that the death toll in Wuhan was 50% higher than previously revealed. It may have overpraised China’s performance and system, but this was part of a deliberate strategy to secure China’s active collaboration so that it could help other countries learn from China’s experience. 

The chief message from this sorry story is that two countries are using WHO as a pawn in pursuing their respective political agendas which encompass issues well beyond the pandemic. China has been very successful in gaining WHO’s seal of approval, in spite of concerns about events prior to it declaring the problem to the WHO and the world. This, in turn, has invited this retaliation from the US. 

When this is over will be the time to learn lessons about what WHO should have done better. But China, the US, and the global community of nations also need to consider their own responsibility in contributing to this terrible unfolding tragedy. 

Charles Clift is a Senior Consulting Fellow at the Centre for Universal Health at Chatham House. He has previously been a staff member at the World Health Organization as well as consulting for the. In 2014 Chatham House published a report he wrote on the WHO “What’s the World Health Organization For?

Competing interests: None declared.