Can the World Health Organization be rejuvenated?

By Kishore Mahbubani

Kofi Annan, the late UN Secretary-General, often said the world was a “global village.” He was right. Our world has shrunk. The recent spread of COVID-19 worldwide, affecting both rich and developing countries, confirms that all 7.5 billion people of the world live in a global village.
Wise philosophers, both Eastern and Western, like Confucius and Plato, have taught us that when we live in a small community, we must develop commonly agreed rules and regulations to manage common spaces and everyday challenges.
Kofi Annan has also said, “we need rules of the road and norms to guide relations between individuals and communities. This is as true of the global village as it is of the village each of us may have come from.” Therefore, if we have become a global village, we should be strengthening global village councils, like the family of UN organizations, who formulate rules and norms as well as manage our global commons and global challenges. Sadly, in recent decades we have been doing the opposite. We have been weakening the UN organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO).
Why did we carry out this irrational act? The answer is complicated. It is so complicated that I wrote a book, The Great Convergence (which has been translated and published in Chinese), to explain this irrationality. However, one key reason stands out.
The wealthiest countries of the world, especially the affluent Western countries, unwisely decided that their interests would be better served by weakening the UN. Many Western countries deny that they are doing this. However, having served as the Singapore Ambassador to the UN twice (from 1984 to 1989 and from 1998 to 2004), I have seen at firsthand how the West has weakened the UN. There is also strong evidence to back up this claim.
Take the WHO as an example. The West weakened it in three ways. First, the West starved the WHO of reliable mandatory funding. It used to be 62 percent in 1970-71. In 2017, it collapsed to 18 percent. Why is this significant? The WHO can only recruit long-term health inspectors from mandatory funding, not voluntary contributions. The second mistake was to focus on biomedicine, with its focus on individual behavior, instead of social medicine.
Epidemics like COVID-19 spread faster if we don’t take care of social conditions. The third mistake was to dilute the role of the WHO and favor institutions like the World Bank controlled by the West. The World Bank lending on health went from roughly half of the WHO budget in 1984 to more than two and a half times bigger by 1996.
Today, as both the US and the European Union are being severely afflicted by COVID-19, they should ask themselves whether it was wise to starve the WHO funding for several decades. They should also re-examine their motives for doing so. Indeed, the US and the EU had different reasons.
The US weakened UN institutions because they constrained the ability of the US to act unilaterally. A former director of the National Intelligence Council told me directly, “Kishore. I can understand why small states like Singapore want stronger multilateral institutions. However, the US finds them constraining.”
He was honest. The EU, by contrast, was primarily concerned about spending less money. The EU countries resented the fact that combined together, they contributed more than 30 percent of the UN budget, yet they had less than 15 percent of the vote for the spending decisions.
Now that the US and the EU have been severely affected by COVID-19, they should logically conclude that it was unwise for them to weaken the WHO. Indeed, there is no question that the Western countries, who are now the most affected, would benefit from a strong WHO. Sadly, even though Western societies worship reason, they find it difficult to change some of their past irrational policies. Too many vested interests will prevent the West from making a logical U-turn away from the weakening of the WHO.
This provides a tremendous opportunity for China. Unlike the Western countries, China has declared that its goal is to strengthen the family of UN organizations, including the WHO.
As President Xi Jinping said in Geneva in 2017, “pandemic diseases such as bird flu, Ebola and Zika have sounded the alarm for international health security. The WHO should play a leadership role in strengthening epidemic monitoring and sharing of information, practices, and technologies.” His words were prophetic.
So, what can China do to strengthen the WHO? The first step is to take the lead in calling for a sharp increase in the share of mandatory funding. This will enable the WHO to make wiser and more strategic long-term plans, including developing long-term capabilities for managing future pandemics. Undoubtedly, more epidemics will come.
However, the question is not just about money. It is also about creating a global ethos that supports President Xi’s statement that humanity is now a “community of shared future.” The people who understand best that humanity is now a “community with a shared future” are the world’s doctors and health administrators.
They know better than anyone else that viruses and bacteria don’t respect borders. They carry no passports. They cross borders effortlessly. Hence, we should find ways and means of bringing together all the global health professionals more frequently.
The WHO can and should hold more meetings of global health professionals. At such meetings, we should pre-emptively anticipate the next few global health crises and put in place plans and measures to protect humanity as a whole. Fortunately, as we have discovered with COVID-19, the solution won’t necessarily be found in expensive medicines. It also lies in simple improvements in personal hygiene.
One of the key lessons I learned from my 10 years in the UN community is that constant face-to-face meetings raised the level of trust and understanding among representatives coming from all corners of the world.
Hence, I am confident that if the WHO, with the strong support of China, could convene regular meetings of the global health professionals in all fields, it would significantly increase the level of trust among them.
–The Daily Mail-Global Times news exchange item