How The WHO Is Funded And Why Trump Needs To Reverse His Decision ASAP

by Kristen Mae
Originally Published: 
How The WHO Is Funded And Why Trump Needs To Reverse His Decision ASAP
Scary Mommy and FABRICE COFFRINI/Getty

No matter what side of the political aisle you pitch your tent on, and no matter your preferred news source, you have likely heard that President Trump announced his intent to halt funding to the World Health Organization.

In what could be interpreted as a move meant to distract from his administration’s inability to contain the spread of COVID-19, Trump has accused the WHO of responding poorly to the COVID-19 outbreak. We’re going to put a hold on money spent,” he said of the U.S.’s contributions to the WHO. “We’re going to put a very powerful hold on it and we’re going to see. These sound like fighting words, but what does Trump mean by “very powerful hold,” and what would a defunded WHO mean for humanity both at home and abroad?

What is the WHO’s budget, and what do they do with it?

Considering the scope of its purpose —“to direct and coordinate international health within the United Nations system” which includes addressing threats of infectious disease, noncommunicable diseases, antimicrobial resistance, and climate change — the WHO operates on a curiously modest annual budget of about $2.4 billion. For comparison, that’s roughly the size of the annual budget of one large U.S. hospital. The CDC’s budget request for 2020 is $6.6 billion — nearly triple that of the WHO’s annual budget.

To be blunt: The WHO is underfunded even without the U.S. pulling its support. This is due to a lack of consistent support around the globe. The U.S. is an extremely wealthy nation with a vested economic interest in the maintenance of global health stability, so it’s reasonable to expect the U.S. to be a committed and generous supporter of the WHO. But then, consider China, a country that arguably also depends very much on global health security for their economic stability and also has many cities with extremely dense populations ripe for the transmission of viruses like COVID-19, and yet the Chinese government contributes only 1% of the WHO’s funding compared to the U.S.’s current 15%.

How is the WHO funded?

This inconsistencies in funding is due to an outdated system of calculating member countries’ responsibility. Other nations are also reluctant to pay a higher share to the WHO, and there is no mechanism by which to hold member nations accountable.

The US is the largest single contributor to the WHO’s budget, though we do not provide “the majority” of the WHO’s funding, as Trump has incorrectly stated. The US contribution represented nearly 15% of WHO funding in 2019, and the second-largest funder is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which provided nearly 10% of the WHO’s 2019 budget.


The rest of the funding is provided by a combination of mandatory and voluntary contributions, with the lion’s share — 80% in the last financial year — being voluntary. The U.K. and Germany were the second largest contributing countries, providing 7.8% and 5.7% respectively in 2019.

Interestingly, though Trump touts U.S. support of the WHO as if we have a perfect record of payment, the truth is, the U.S. has more outstanding payments owed to the WHO than any other country. We currently have $99 million outstanding.

What is Trump’s reasoning for halting funding?

First of all, we need to collectively recognize that no one got this virus completely right. Well, no one but the virus itself. It’s a wily bastard unlike any transmittable disease we’ve seen before, and it has taken by surprise the government of every single country into which it has sunk its nasty, microscopic virus claws.

No one was adequately prepared for how contagious it is, no one was prepared for asymptomatic carriers, no one was prepared for its absurdly long incubation period. A virus that can spread from person to person with no visible symptoms for up to two weeks is nearly impossible to control. We’ve literally never seen anything like it before.

So what is Trump’s criticism of the WHO? A few things. He accuses the WHO of not acting quickly enough (that’s laughable considering his lethargic response here in the U.S.), of being too “China-centric,” and of criticizing his decision to institute travel bans. The first and second are debatable and difficult to verify, but the last one is verifiably untrue.

The WHO, the CDC, and other member governments worked together years ago in response to the 2009 H1N1 pandemic to construct a pandemic preparedness plan, and all agreed at the time those plans were made that in response to previous outbreaks, travel bans do more harm than good. The prevailing understanding was that travel bans encourage people to lie about symptoms and travel history, can cause governments to be dishonest about infection rates and spread, and that their enforcement can divert essential resources from other more dependable means of preventing the spread of infection.

Everyone agreed that travel bans would not be the primary method of virus containment, and yet this is one of Trump’s primary stated reasons for pulling funding from the WHO. He deliberately phrases his speech and his tweets to make it appear that the WHO criticized the U.S. travel bans. It did not.

Why the U.S. should continue to fund the WHO

In March, the WHO asked for $675 million in funds to continue fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a standard ask — the WHO budget is set up to request funding as need arises. The UK has announced that it would offer an additional £65 million to the WHO.

As UN Secretary General António Guterres said, “the World Health Organization must be supported, as it is absolutely critical to the world’s efforts to win the war against COVID-19.” If the WHO can employ its budget to provide aid to developing countries, it will slow the transmission of COVID-19 and reduce the potential for “second wave” outbreaks across the globe. The WHO cannot be effective if it is not funded, and wealthy countries — especially the U.S. — need to step up and ensure that it is.

The thing is, even if we were to agree that the WHO made mistakes, it is possible — preferable — to investigate and improve the function of the WHO without defunding it. But that’s for later. At the moment, every nation needs to focus its energy into managing this pandemic as a united international community rather than waste precious time and resources lobbing accusations at one another. Because, again, the virus surprised us all.

There will be plenty of time later to figure out who did what wrong and where. We can examine the actions of every player, and that data will inform our future pandemic preparedness plans. But, for now, tearing down the one international organization we have available to fight this pandemic is absolutely the wrong thing to do.

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