The President and his Secretary are currently enjoying their attacks at the World Health Organisation WHO which they accuse of being excessively close to China and having hidden vital information on the scope and danger of the Covid pandemic in its early stages, thus allegedly preventing the U.S. and the world from taking timely action. To emphasize his displeasure, the President blocked all payments to WHO. When the German foreign minister Maas had the temerity to address President Trump, asking him to reinstate the U.S. contributions to the world body in order to ensure its proper functioning during the Covid crisis, he received a bruising answer lecturing him on America’s role in the history of the global agency.
The entire affair reveals a stunning lack of understanding of the world body and the way it works.
First things first: there is no WHO as an independent organization that can take autonomous decisions, favor certain governments over others and can hide information from member governments.
The WHO is like all United Nations agencies an intergovernmental body consisting of a Director General and his or her secretariat, working under close governmental oversight.
A member government criticizing WHO resembles Don Quijote’s battle against the windmill. The United States is prominently represented on the governing bodies of WHO. Due to its dominant contribution to the agencies’ regular budget, the American representatives are very influential, receive all available information, and enjoy instant access to the Director General.
There is a two-tier oversight body guiding the Director General, the Executive Board and the World Health Assembly, both made up of government representatives. Numerous committees and commissions are taking care of individual health issues, staffed by government representatives and individual experts nominated by governments.
In addition, there are hundreds of American nationals members of the staff of WHO or serving as experts. Most of them probably have close ties to Washington, D.C., to American universities or are outposted U.S. government officials. Taken together, they are keeping a running watch on what WHO is planning and doing.
Given this framework, how could WHO favor one country (China) over another one (the U.S.), as President Trump alleges? All UN agencies are essentially government clubs. The agency heads are expected to serve the member governments. For an agency chief it is not done to criticize an individual government. To praise is permissible, to criticize is unheard of.
The current Director General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, is an Ethiopian nominated by the former TPLF-dominated government which had socialist roots. He is accused by Washington of being subservient to China which allegedly supported his candidacy for the position of DG. Be it as it may.
The structure of UN agencies allows an agency head to populate the staff with candidates from his or her region. Tedros. for instance, could favor Africans for vacant or newly created posts if he wished to do so – which is not sure. But pandering to China is outside of his reach.
He praised China for its radical lockdown policy in the early days of the Wuhan-originated epidemy, but so did President Donald Trump. Both gentlemen probably hoped that the epidemy would remain isolated in China, not knowing that it had already spread over much of the world.
The technical agencies of the United Nations are the global equivalent of government ministries. WHO functions like a world health ministry. Weakening its work during a pandemic has a somewhat suicidal connotation.
True to tradition, the U.S. government has suspended its payments to WHO. America is the only member state that exploits its role as major contributor by withholding contributions to UN agencies whenever it is dissatisfied with the organization’s policies or performance. UNESCO, for instance, fell victim of such blackmail, usually because of the Palestinian problem.
In putting thumbscrews on an agency, various U.S. administrations revealed a rather limited understanding of democracy. Everywhere in the United Nations family of organizations, developing countries constitute the majority of member states. Whenever they take a decision the White House does not like– for instance to admit Palestine as a member – Washington cuts off the funding. Of course other rich member countries could pick up the tab and provide the agency with extra-budgetary funds to replace, at least partly, the missing U.S. contribution.
Why don’t they do that in the current case of WHO? Because they fear that Washington will say: thank you, and reduce its future contributions as it already did as regards the UN by insisting on a ceiling limiting individual contributions.
The ongoing U.S.-China spat is less about the pandemic; it’s more about winning elections. Many Americans, especially conservative ones, don’t like the United Nations anyway. Bashing them is popular; withholding contributions seems thrifty. America first!
Heinrich von Loesch