As General Assembly Gathers, Give the WHO Its Due
By Paige Alexander CEO, The Carter Center and Dr. Kashef Ijaz Vice President-Health Programs, The Carter Center
The 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly opens Tuesday, Sept. 14. It is a time of great anticipation as representatives of 193 member states come together in the great hall to discuss issues and set an agenda for the coming year. World political leaders, including President Joe Biden, will give speeches that will be closely watched for clues and outright declarations regarding a wide variety of international challenges, global health among them.
Behind the scenes, in conference rooms, hallways, and hotel lobbies, representatives of the many U.N. agencies — including the World Health Organization — will meet less formally with nonstate actors such as internet entrepreneurs, military contractors, pharmaceutical companies, and nongovernmental organizations, all seeking to participate in (or cash in on) the decisions the General Assembly will make.
One might hope that global health concerns would be immune to the influence of money and politics, but recent history shows us this is not the case. The United States made a political decision in April 2020 to halt its considerable contributions to the WHO and end its membership in the organization over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
The U.S. is the global health body’s largest single funder and contributed more than $400 million in 2019, according to the BBC. The funding halt put a number of universally beneficial WHO programs in peril and made the already difficult work of The Carter Center and its partner countries even more challenging. Former President Jimmy Carter was part of a chorus of world leaders who deplored the move; he issued a statement saying he was “distressed by the decision to withhold critically needed U.S. funding for the World Health Organization, especially during an international pandemic.”
The Carter Center has a long and fruitful history of working in close partnership with the WHO. When Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the former foreign minister of Carter Center partner country Ethiopia, was elected WHO director-general in 2017, he made a point of visiting The Carter Center before taking the reins. Past directors-general have traveled with Carter Center teams to observe firsthand our partner countries’ work on neglected tropical diseases.
Moreover, the Center has assisted in the elimination of one or more NTDs in 20 countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, helping them secure official WHO recognition. And, of course, the WHO recognizes the Center as the leader of the global campaign to eradicate Guinea worm disease. Furthermore, The Carter Center has provided substantive and strategic input into the creation of WHO global road maps, guidelines, and policies, and has influenced global in-kind pharmaceutical donations for WHO NTD programs.
Thankfully, this year the United States restored its participation and resumed its contributions to the WHO, a vital institution with a pure mission of helping people all over the world live longer, healthier lives. The Carter Center believes in and participates in that mission and believes the WHO deserves full and enthusiastic support.