WHO? Global Health Stalwart Must Reevaluate its Identity

Should the WHO put scarce resources into building up national health systems or building up the organization’s own capacity to respond to public health emergencies? 

Despite its reputation as a leading global health institution, the World Health Organization seems to be suffering from an identity crisis of sorts. The issue that the WHO faces is not whether it should act as either a technical agency or as a capacity-building one, but rather how to it can combine both objectives in aid of becoming a successful global health entity. In order to accomplish all of this, it is vital that the WHO creates and fosters a sense of unity among its main and regional offices, funds meaningful capacity-building programs in its member states and continues to deploy the technical expertise for which it is so well regarded.

The World Health Organization has, by and large, regarded itself as a technical agency that lends medical expertise to member nations during their various health-related endeavors. It has not viewed itself as a capacity-building agent that focuses on strengthening its members’ health systems. This is a crucial error. The technical expertise that the WHO employs is essentially useless unless it can be implemented by local stakeholders using equipment and facilities fit for fulfilling the needs inherent in any health crisis.

A large part of the disconnect between the WHO and its ability to live up to its name as a leading global health institution is the disparity between its headquarters’ staff in Geneva and the members of its regional offices. As Patterson points out, the WHO’s 150 regional offices are spearheaded by leadership selected locally; there is no nomination process, no majority vote and no high-level committee proceedings that take place to install the management teams that oversee WHO activities in their respective regions. This in and of itself is not a problem, but it highlights the need for the WHO to adopt a strong central identity and mission that it can

There exists the argument that across-the-board capacity building is a fruitless endeavor, one that cripples the WHO by dedicating resources to projects that may or may not be needed. This argument, however, falls flat in the face of logic as dictated by global trends. Without adequate medical facilities, less-developed states will be left unable to contain and eradicate illnesses that can spread and have widespread effects on even the best-prepared societies.

The argument that funds shouldn’t be earmarked for projects that don’t have immediate impact is becomingly increasingly invalid. Globalization makes pandemics in even the most undeveloped parts of the world inevitably impactful and incredibly dangerous on the global stage; international travel is a reality and an outright necessity; human movement on the ground is also unavoidable, especially considering the number of people implicated in massive displacement crises as a result of civil war as well those fleeing to the global north in search of something other than the substandard living conditions they are accustomed to.

Greater investment in health infrastructure would encourage the WHO to be more accountable to its donors by forcing them to maintain the facilities they helped build—facilities that are instrumental in tackling health issues before they turn into full-blown pandemics. If adequate facilities had been in place ahead of the Ebola crisis, for example, it is possible that early detection would have prevented the spread of the disease and the ensuing global panic. By building up national health systems, the WHO is also building up its own capacity to respond to public health emergencies. Admittedly the investment in shoring up countless state health systems is mind-bogglingly massive, but it is key in positioning the organization to be truly effective in combatting global health crises. There is no good reason to regard these efforts as mutually exclusive. One might contend that such an ambitious mandate is unsustainable or unappealing to donors, but championing the long-term benefits of such a reimagined institution may be enough to convince them of its overall value.

The WHO has a number of significant issues it must overcome in order to be truly effective in its mission. In addition to coming to grips with its identity, the organization must make meaningful investments in capacity building efforts and work to maximize the effectiveness of its trademark technical expertise. On a global stage with dynamics as complex as those faced by all international organizations, the WHO must reprioritize and reimagine its mission by being proactive and not reactive.



3 thoughts on “WHO? Global Health Stalwart Must Reevaluate its Identity

  1. To an extent, I do agree that the WHO needs to do more to invest in the core health care systems of underdeveloped states. Logically, doing so would mean that states would have a more structural advantage to dealing with these moments of crisis. It would also put less burden on the international community to intervene on their behalf. I agree with the post in regards to the importance of handling pandemics in underdeveloped states, particularly as globalization is more and more accelerated (though recent global events may start to decelerate it).

    However, I could see also how spending resources on vital heath care systems in underdeveloped states can be worrisome for the organization’s major donors. By putting money into notoriously weak and fragile states, many who have a vast history of crony capitalism and massive levels of corruption, it can be difficult to convince donors that money ought to be funneled into these states,


  2. I agree with Jativa, but let me argue on WHO’s resource limitation.

    WHO will be more efficient if it builds up its capacity to respond to public health emergencies and also put scarce resources into building up national health system, but let us not forget that the organization has very limited resources.

    For example, it does not have the capacity or the organizational culture to deliver a full emergency public health response and the funding for technical support to the International Health Regulations (2005) is lacking. There is no solid way of getting funding because currently, less than 25% of its budget comes from contributions and the remainder (almost 75%) from voluntary funds which is not guaranteed.

    Putting resources into national health systems will force WHO to support individual countries. As of 2016, WHO has 194 member states, my question is, which countries should it give the priority? Also remember, the agency has to care about its reputation among the dominant funding countries (with regional interests) as Patterson argues, cares more about its legitimacy, trust and also how it gets its funding.

    Should WHO create Regional Health Organizations (RHO) that are funded and maintained by the existing regional organizations? But still, will this be a form of competition or will it be seen as burden sharing?

    I think, for now, due to limited resources, WHO should concentrate on building its capacity to respond to public health emergencies.


    • But isn’t there something to be said for cultivating an organizational culture that aims to build up global health systems? I realize that funding is a massive hurdle in implementing such an ambitious campaign, but I also imagine that donors would be more inclined to fund an organization with a clear mission, sense of unity and a clearly defined end-game. Yes, this is a naive idealist’s view, but at some point decisions must be made that provide clarity to the WHO itself as well as to its donors about what exactly the organization is trying to accomplish. To continue addressing global health crises on an ad hoc basis that ultimately does little to increase global resilience against pandemics. What good is the eradication of one illness if its country of origin is still left unequipped to handle even the most mundane future health issues?


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