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President Trump announced at the White House coronavirus press briefing on Tuesday that the United States will immediately halt all funding for the World Health Organization, because it had caused “so much death” by “severely mismanaging and covering up” the coronavirus’ spread, putting “political correctness over lifesaving measures.”
Other government officials, health experts, and analysts also have raised concerns about the WHO’s bungled response to the pandemic, accusing it of being too trusting of the Chinese government, which initially tried to conceal the outbreak in Wuhan. Rather than taking Beijing to task for its initial attempts at a cover-up, WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus praised Chinese President Xi Jinping for his “very rare leadership” in showing “transparency” in the government’s response to the virus.
Taro Aso, Japan’s deputy prime minister and finance minister, went so far as to deride WHO as the “Chinese Health Organization” because of what he described as its overly close ties to Beijing. There is no question that the organization and its leader were strangely slow in declaring a global health emergency and, thereafter, a pandemic.
The United States should have reexamined WHO funding years ago. But given the timing of President Trump’s remarks in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, we are already hearing condemnation of the administration’s plan to scrutinize WHO funding.
Such condemnations are wrong-headed. Although having a global public health body is in line with US interests, the WHO, which has been largely underwritten by the US government, has repeatedly failed us. The current pandemic must be a final wake-up call that something needs to change.
American taxpayers are the largest contributors to WHO’s approximately $2 billion budget. Like other UN organizations, the WHO is plagued by persistent wasteful spending, an utter disregard for transparency, pervasive incompetence, and a failure to adhere to even basic democratic standards. Its Western hemisphere subsidiary, the Pan American Health Organization, supports antidemocratic regimes and actually weakens public health rather than strengthens it, according to an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal.
Why are incompetence and profligacy rife within the sprawling organization? In several respects, it’s in the United Nations’ DNA.
First, the UN is essentially a monopoly. Inefficiency and incompetence cannot be punished by “consumers” of their products or services spurning the UN and patronizing a competitor. On the contrary, it is not uncommon in these kinds of bureaucracies for failure to be rewarded with additional resources. Unlike in the private sector, where failed projects are shut down, if a program at the UN isn’t working, the bureaucrats clamor to expand it.
Second, UN officials are rewarded for making the bureaucratic machinery run—for producing reports, guidelines, white papers and agreements, and for holding meetings—whether or not they are of high quality or make sense. Often, they don’t: the bureaucrats often sacrifice quality and veracity for consensus.
Third, there’s neither accountability nor transparency at the UN. There’s no US Government Accountability Office, House of Lords Select Committee, or parliamentary oversight, and no electorate to kick the UN officials out when they are dishonest or act contrary to the public interest.
Finally, the organization is no meritocracy: the country or region of origin of a leadership candidate seems to be more important than his or her credentials and qualifications.
Under WHO’s polio eradication policy in Syria, healthcare workers were allowed to work only with the brutal, corrupt regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, but not in rebel-held areas. Thus, although WHO was effective in containing polio within government territory, the disease was able to spread throughout rebel areas. In addition, the organization has been widely condemned for failing to raise the alarm about the dangers of Ebola in West Africa in 2014.
The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) routinely puts out alarmist reports that are contradicted by regulators worldwide. When a US congressional committee attempted to investigate charges of corruption and conflicts of interest, the IARC rebuffed the effort.
Calls for Dr. Tedros to resign are insufficient. He isn’t the problem; he’s only the latest symptom of an irreversibly corrupt institution.
The United States’ hugely disproportionate funding of UN activities—our mandatory assessment and voluntary contributions total some $8 billion of the organization’s roughly $50 billion in annual expenditures—might soon be coming to an end. And not a moment too soon.