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Under-funded WHO seeks ‘reinforced’ role in global health at key meeting

GENEVA — The World Health Organization (WHO) will push at its board meeting this week for an expanded role in tackling the next global health emergency after COVID-19, but is still seeking answers on how to fund it, according to health policy experts.

The Geneva meeting sets the program for the U.N. agency this year — as well as its future budget — with the WHO facing two key challenges: a world that expects ever more from its leading health body, but which has not yet proven willing to fund it to tackle those challenges.

At the Executive Board’s annual meeting from Jan. 30-Feb. 7, countries will give feedback on WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’ global strategy to strengthen readiness for the next pandemic which includes a binding treaty currently being negotiated.

“I think the focus is very much on the program budget, then sustainable financing,” Timothy Armstrong, WHO director for governing bodies, told journalists when asked about the agenda.

Also on his list was “the position of the World Health Organization, recognizing there is a need for a reinforced central role for WHO” in the global health emergency system.

The WHO is seeking a record $6.86 billion for the 2024-2025 budget, saying that approving this sum would be “a historic move towards a more empowered and independent WHO.”

But approval will require member states to make good on promises made last year to hike mandatory fees — a fact which is uncertain since the deal was always subject to conditions.

“What we are currently seeing is that some member states are now trying to pre-condition lots of things,” said a source close to the talks, saying it “remains to be seen” if all countries will commit to raising fees. Reuters could not immediately establish which countries might withhold support.

The current base budget, which does not include the funding changes, has a nearly $1-billion financing hole, a WHO document showed — although that gap is not unusual at this point, two sources added. However, one did add that it was “absurd” that the WHO still has to scrabble for money after COVID-19.

“It’s a huge knot,” said Nicoletta Dentico, the co-chair of the civil society platform the Geneval Global Health Hub. “The weakness of WHO is under our eyes.”

The agency is also considering starting big replenishment rounds every few years to top up its coffers, a document showed.

The WHO, which celebrates its 75-year anniversary having been set up in 1948, will also use the meeting to advocate for a boosted role in pandemic preparedness, documents showed.

Tedros will call for a Global Health Emergency Council to be set up linked to WHO governance. However, external experts have said such a council needs higher-level political leadership.

“Given that pandemic threats involve and impact almost every sector, it must be an outcome of a UN General Assembly resolution, be appointed by and accountable to it,” Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand and head of the independent panel set up to review the handling of COVID, told Reuters. — Reuters

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