Is corporate influence on World Health Organization set to increase?

As the ongoing World Health Assembly discusses funding for the WHO, there are rising concerns of the agency being further dependent on corporate and other non-member donors whose contributions are for specific programs

May 29, 2023 by Peoples Health Dispatch
WHO Budget
(Photo: Guilhem Vellut from Annecy, France, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

During the 76th World Health Assembly (WHA), the World Health Organization (WHO) grapples with ongoing challenges related to its funding. Hopes were high that this year’s discussions would lead to a more stable budget, building upon a previous recommendation by the Working Group on Sustainable Financing. This proposal aimed to increase the amount of the WHO’s flexible funds by establishing a replenishment mechanism.

However, recent deliberations on May 24 have raised doubts about the fulfillment of this expectation. The revised funding proposal diverges from the original intention of increasing unearmarked contributions, which would grant the agency more freedom in resource allocation. Instead, the revised decision emphasizes earmarked funds, designated for specific WHO programs. In the past, the prevalence of earmarked funds—which now amount to over 80% of the agency’s overall budget—has resulted in certain programs receiving more resources than they require, while others struggle to meet their basic objectives.

“The draft decision goes against the very objective of the recommendation of the Working Group. As per the approved budget of USD 6834.1 million for the 2024-25 biennium, USD 5685.8 million is to be funded through Voluntary Contributions (VCs). The institutionalization of earmarked funding would further stabilize donor driven priorities and compromise the credibility, independence and integrity of WHO,” said Lauren Paremoer of the People’s Health Movement (PHM) in a press release published by civil society organizations reacting to the problem.

If the revised decision is ratified as is, it could pave the way for even more corporate influence over the WHO. The extent of influence exerted by non-member donors on the United Nations agency has previously raised concerns, and this revised decision may institutionalize such influence. At the moment, certain philanthropic-capitalist organizations, such as the Gates Foundation, contribute more in funding than certain member countries of the WHO.

“Philantro-capitalist influence cannot be the destiny of the WHO. It has come to be accepted as the normal state of affairs, but has to be resisted in every way possible. We call on Member States to ensure sufficient and predictable assessed funds to safeguard the leading role of WHO in international health,” said Baba Aye from Public Services International.

The tone set by the revised decision also perpetuates the financialization of health, which has been observed in recent years, cautioned Nicoletta Dentico from the Society for International Development and KM Gopakumar from the Third World Network. Dentico warned that the current approach merely reinforces a financial perspective on health instead of focusing on formulating long-term health policies that address people’s needs.

KM Gopakumar specifically highlighted concerns about the proposition of a WHO Investors’ Forum. According to him, the idea would “seriously undermine the role of the vast majority of Member States in WHO’s governance. The forum participants, primarily consisting of philanthropic foundations and private sector entities, would de facto control WHO’s priorities,” he is quoted saying in the release.

The current version of the decision would diminish the voice and participation of countries from the Global South in WHO decision-making, while a smaller group of high-income nations and corporate entities would wield significant influence. Such a scenario would gravely undermine the WHO’s ability to fulfill its mandate of safeguarding global health, despite recent reminders of the agency’s critical role in the world’s health needs.

The WHO Watch team is made of: Marta Caminiti, Dian Blandina, Mariana Lopes Simoes, Juliette Claudine Mattijsen, Facundo Fernandez, Chiamo Seraphine, Ben Verboom, Axelle Ebode, Lauren Paremoer, Candelaria Araoz Falcon, Jyotsna Singh

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