How the WHO became an expensive joke

This week, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced the appointment of its new director general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. He will replace the outgoing Margaret Chan. It’s an opportunity to reflect on Chan’s strange leadership and the direction the WHO has been heading in.

While in office, Chan praised North Korea for its low rates of obesity, congratulated Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte for his crackdown on smoking, and failed to respond to the 2014 ebola outbreak in West Africa because she was at a Moscow summit on e-cigarettes. In short, she will not be missed.

But Chan’s tenure will be remembered for more than her odd pronouncements. On the eve of Ghebreyesus’ appointment, The Times revealed that the WHO’s annual budget for travel and accommodation reached £153million last year. To put that into context, WHO expenditure on AIDS control in the same period totalled £55million. Malaria, meanwhile, received just £47million.

Now, it is understandable that a global health body, tasked with responding to crises around the world, might spend a lot on travel and accommodation for its staff. But, increasingly, this is not where the money is going. Much of it was spent ferrying dignitaries to a never-ending series of conferences and conventions. The Times cites the example of Chan’s visit to a summit in Guinea, where she stayed in a hotel room advertised at £800 a night.

Again, such expense might be justified if these trips were concerned with tackling infectious diseases. But they weren’t. Rather than spending its time treating viruses and tackling pandemics, the WHO has morphed into the world’s foremost lifestyle meddler – it’s become obsessed with obesity, alcohol and smoking. That Chan felt moved to praise autocratic regimes reflects the authoritarian turn the WHO has undertaken – policing lifestyles is now its raison d’être.

It’s not hard to see why the WHO thinks it can carry on in this way. It’s a vast, unaccountable organisation which receives copious amounts of public money but little in the way of public scrutiny. It is meant to respond to global health crises. But rather than helping those in need, it wastes far too much of its resources pontificating about what we should eat, drink and do in our spare time. Governments lavish huge sums of their citizens’ cash on the WHO, yet it is hopelessly out of touch with what the public needs.

It’s high time the WHO returned to its core mission. But Ghebreyesus, elected in another closed-shop process, is unlikely to be the man to do it.

Benedict Spence is a writer based in London.

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