Countries agree to overhaul WHO funding model

GENEVA – The World Health Organisation’s member states agreed Tuesday (May 24) to overhaul how they fund the UN health agency, giving it much more money to spend on its own priorities.

The budget will give the WHO a more stable income stream and control over a much bigger portion of the funding flowing through its Geneva headquarters.

The change is aimed at strengthening the organisation and making it more agile when responding to global health crises like the coronavirus pandemic.

Countries currently channel most of their cash into health projects of their own choosing. But member states will now transition towards giving half of their WHO contributions as straightforward membership fees instead, giving the organisation more flexibility.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, re-elected Tuesday, has made transforming the agency’s finances a key plank of his leadership.

“This will be a game-changer for WHO,” he told the World Health Assembly, the annual gathering of the organisation’s member states, in his victory speech.

Before Tuesday’s decision, he had warned countries that it was “now or never”, after the Covid-19 crisis exposed the shortcomings of the current set-up.

“The pandemic has demonstrated why the world needs WHO, but also why the world needs a stronger, empowered and sustainably financed WHO,” Tedros told the assembly, which serves as the agency’s decision-making body.

Room for manoeuvre

The WHO gets its money from its 194 member states and non-governmental organisations. Nations’ membership fees – “assessed contributions” calculated according to wealth and population – account for less than one-fifth of the WHO’s funding.

Most of it currently comes via “voluntary contributions” from member states and donors, which go towards outcomes specified by them. The organisation therefore has limited leeway to respond to crises like Covid-19, the war in Ukraine and other health emergencies.

The membership fee portion will rise to 50 per cent by the 2030-2031 budget cycle at the latest. In return, the WHO will be expected to implement reforms, including towards more transparency on its financing and hiring.

Changing the funding model will help the WHO implement its priorities “more effectively and efficiently”, Tedros said Tuesday.

Rather than spending time scrambling to find money, “You’re telling us to focus on the programmes, and the funding will be taken care of.”

“You are ensuring the stability of our organisation.”

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