Wasteful spending at the WHO did not start in 2019. According to internal documents obtained by AP, the UN health agency routinely spends about $200 million a year on travel expenses—more than what it doles out to fight some of the biggest problems facing public health, including AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined. In 2018, WHO spent about $71 million on AIDS and hepatitis, $61 million on malaria, and $59 million on tuberculosis. The previous D-G of the WHO, Dr. Margaret Chan, preferred to fly first class and spent a night in the top-tier presidential suite at the beachside Palm Camayenne hotel, all on the WHO account. The suite, equipped with marble bathrooms and a private dining room that seats eight, costs 900 euros ($1,008) per night. “When you spend the kind of money WHO is spending on travel, you have to be able to justify it,” Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Global Health Institute at Harvard University, said. “I can’t think of any justification for ever flying first class.”
Reform is not going to come from within WHO itself. The latest evidence of this was the election of an unqualified non-physician to hold the D-G position: Ethiopian politician Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (PhD). Tedros was selected over an eminently qualified British candidate, David Nabbaro, MD.
Tedros is a leader of Ethiopia’s brutal minority party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, a wing of the ruling Marxist-rooted Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. He served the violently repressive regime as minister of foreign affairs from 2012 to 2016, after a stint as health minister. Tedros, who is now in charge of making life or death decisions on a global scale, has been accused of covering up three cholera epidemics in Ethiopia, supporting a terrorist organization, and inflating his resume with the false claim that he conquered malaria and HIV.
Tedros was FM of one of the world’s most repressive regimes, one that holds many thousands of political prisoners. That part of his record was suppressed by China, which highlighted his alleged heath credentials in an effort to make him appear suitable for the D-G position at the WHO. Beijing leveraged its investments across Africa to force the African Union to back Tedros.
WHO needs a new D-G to lead discussions on the organization’s role in a world that has changed dramatically since the 1940s. Global health is now the business of many NGOs, private foundations, corporations, and academic groups. Reforming WHO requires a D-G who can work with diverse players and governments to tackle norms and standards. Wherever possible, operational functions should be spun off to other organizations within the UN or to NGOs that are better qualified than the WHO to execute them.
Dr. Frank Musmar is a financial and performance management specialist and a non-resident research associate at the BESA Center.