By Fred Roeder and Chloe Westley

With a combined budget of over 100 million pounds, taxpayers in the United Kingdom are some of the largest contributors to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) budget. Britain also spends nearly 1 billion pounds on various other bilateral public health initiatives around the globe. Unfortunately, many of these projects are not improving people’s health or dealing with global pandemics. Instead, this money is wasted on inflated and decadent bureaucracies and ideological projects.

The founding Executive Secretary of the WHO listed in 1948 the three main priorities of his organisation: fighting malaria, battling tuberculosis and preventing sexually transmitted diseases. In 2012, the WHO laid out its primary role as “providing leadership on matters critical to health, engaging in partnerships where joint action is needed, and providing technical support, catalysing change and building sustainable institutional capacity.”

Unfortunately, constant mission creep has lead to the WHO becoming a wasteful organisation in which delegates from pariah states are able to have a luxurious life on the dime of Western taxpayers. A lack of transparency and accountability has created an untenable situation – the UK Government urgently need to make a case to reform the WHO and its own development aid policies to ensure the sound use of limited funds.

The main issues are as follows:

1) Fighting employment instead of Ebola

In 2013, at the beginning of the Ebola crisis – which originated in the West African country Guinea – the WHO published a report on fighting tobacco in Guinea, with the main concern being women working in tobacco. The global response body saw a problem with “attractive young women hired by tobacco companies as marketing executives… whose duty is to promote cigarettes at nightclubs.” Bizarrely, the WHO was more concerned with women in developing countries earning their own living than the discovery of a deadly virus.

2) Openness behind closed doors

At the bi-annual Conference of the Parties of the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in Delhi, the few observers who were allowed to attend witnessed British and Western delegations applauding the Iranian delegation for their “brave” fight against non-communicable diseases such as tobacco use. The delegates then went on to discuss how anti-smoking policies could successfully be applied in war-torn Syria.

The delegates later decided to move to a so-called “open session” in which all observers and journalists are asked to leave, leaving the remainder of the conference taking place behind closed doors. For an organisation that takes hundreds of millions of pounds from British taxpayers each year, there is very little transparency about how that money is spent.

3) Schmoozing with autocrats

While the recently elected Director-General of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom, made headlines by appointing Zimbabwe’s dictator Robert Mugabe as their “Goodwill Ambassador”. Indeed, there are even more bizarre incidents of nepotism throughout Mr Adhanom’s tenure. Shortly after his election, Adhanom appointed the Russian health official Tereza Kasaeva in a fast-track procedure to the top of the WHO leadership team. Insiders and NGOs working on TB saw this as a gesture by Adhanom to thank the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s support in his election.

4) Slush funds for political support

Despite the WHO receiving billions of Western taxpayer dollars, the United Kingdom decided in 2016 to release 15 million pounds of Official Development Assistance funding to support the implementation of tobacco control measures in low and mid-income countries.

So-called development aid is being funnelled into the budgets of public health activists so they can travel and lobby for political purposes. Given that these funds usually go to countries with kleptocratic structures and weak institutions, it would not be surprising if some of this money ends up in the private pockets of politicians and bureaucrats.

In short, the World Health Organisation are using UK taxpayers money to bribe decision makers in developing countries to adopt certain tobacco control laws. 

5) Double standards at work

Funding questionable politicians is not the only way Britain spends taxpayer’s money on international missions. Roughly a quarter of a million pounds were spent to bring at least 35 regulators and academics to the World Conference on Tobacco in Cape Town, in early March 2018.

The British delegation killed some time by attending a wine tasting event despite the fact that many of them are vocal alcohol control activists. Some have even claimed that small intakes of alcohol can cause cancer, and have advocated for tighter alcohol policies. Apparently, as long as it’s a government-sponsored trip, it’s perfectly fine to drink wine. It is apparently only the people at home that need to be protected from such behaviour.

These are just a few examples of how our taxes are wasted on an inefficient and potentially corrupt institution. We cannot allow this to continue – if the UK is going to continue to send millions to the WHO each year, then that money should be spent on actually fighting global public health.

This focus must be on threats such as Ebola, not funding exciting trips for public health bureaucrats, where money normally ends up in the hands of shady governments. A conversation on possibly defunding the WHO and moving some of its core responsibilities to either the World Bank or a new and actually accountable organisation is needed.

Britain will soon have a voice again on the world stage. It should use that voice to lead a crackdown on corrupt and wasteful spending at intergovernmental organisations such as the World Health Organisation.

Fred Roeder is a health economist and Managing Director of the Consumer Choice Center, and Chloe Westley is Campaign Manager at the Taxpayers’ Alliance.

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