Donald Trump is often wrong, but sometimes he’s just a little bit right. And when it comes to the World Health Organization, there are some morsels of truth in the U.S. President’s heaping bowl of error. Unfortunately, his preferred solution leans entirely on what he gets wrong.
All multinational organizations are to some extent liable to pressure from the states that fund them. The WHO does not appear to be entirely exempt from this reality. And by cutting off American funding, the U.S. President is unwittingly proving the point.
He thinks the WHO has a problem: that it’s been insufficiently independent of China. He is not the first person to have suggested this, though by his actions, he’s trying to make the problem worse. Great strategy, chief.
Earlier this year, the WHO was slow to warn the world about the nature of, and appropriate response to, the emerging COVID-19 situation. Much of that was due to Beijing being less than truthful with foreign health officials. (Or with its own people: Early in the outbreak, Beijing arrested Chinese doctors who raised the alarm.)
The WHO can’t be blamed for how Beijing rolls. With apologies to federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu, a certain degree of skepticism about any and all official Chinese government data doesn’t prove you’re a conspiracy theorist. It proves that you’re awake.
But aside from being a victim of information suppression, the WHO may also have been reluctant to offend one of the world’s superpowers.
That’s an institutional hazard of multilateral organizations, and a truth about human relations as old as time: People paying the piper tend to act like they should be calling the tune. Absent safeguards of musical independence, pipers are always at risk of having sheet music forced on them by those signing their paycheques.
Life in Mr. Trump’s current profession is illustrative of the situation. In U.S. politics, corporate donors and others with deep pockets are free to spend unlimited amounts of money backing or attacking candidates for public office. Congress is filled with men and women who owe their seats, at least in part, to their donors. Politicians who put discordant tunes on the legislative turntable will be quietly reminded of who filled their last election campaign’s war chest, and who might not the next time around.
But there are solutions for this, and they get used all the time in other areas of life. Worried that universities are beholden to donors? Professors have tenure; donors can’t fire them if their research yields unpalatable answers. Worried about money buying a court verdict? Judges in Canada have their independence guaranteed until age 75. Want to buy a politician? To discourage Canadian elected officials from being played like a jukebox, corporations and unions are not allowed to donate to political parties federally, or in most provinces. Annual donation limits are also relatively low in most of the country; in Quebec, it’s a mere $100 per voter.
If the WHO, in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak, really did hit the mute button in order to please Beijing, then the answer is not to get rid of the WHO. It’s to make it harder for China, or any other government, to lean on the world’s most important health organization.
We need the WHO to do better, not disappear. It should be generously funded and structured so as to be capable of acting independently of those countries, such as China, it may have to blow the whistle on.
If the Trudeau government wants a useful campaign for global health, this is it.
Push it with our allies, and our G20 partners. Don’t defund the WHO; give it the resources, and the insulation, it needs to be successful and independent. Get multi-year guarantees of funding for five or even 10 years in advance, so the WHO effectively has tenure. Take steps to up the odds of it being able to make scientific judgments without fear, even when the science points a finger at a superpower.
The irony in all of this is that China isn’t the WHO’s biggest donor. Not even close. In 2018-19, Canada gave more to the WHO. So did several other countries, from Japan to the United Kingdom to Norway. So did three major U.S. charities, led by the Gates Foundation. And Washington, the WHO’s most important supporter, contributed nearly US$1-billion – about 10 times as much as Beijing.
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