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06.02.20

How funding the WHO benefits US foreign policy

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Author: Summer Marion, MALD | Research Fellow, University of Maryland School of Public Policy

The Main Point: Withdrawing from the WHO would hurt both US and global security – leaving a void private philanthropy cannot fill. Drawing on a TRIP Snap Poll conducted in April and May of 2020, it is clear that doubling down on global health investments safeguards longstanding bipartisan policy priorities and bolsters perceptions of the US as a global leader.

This policy memo is part of a series explaining the WHO. Read more here.

On May 29, President Trump announced the US would be terminating its relationship with the World Health Organization (WHO), following threats to withdraw funding beginning in mid-April. The US should increase rather than withdraw support for the WHO to protect against health and economic harm from future outbreaks, and safeguard US reputation and bipartisan foreign policy priorities.

WHO lacks both enforcement mechanisms and sufficient flexible funding, but states have the power to strengthen it. Its budget of $6.27 billion for 2018-2019 is comprised of 80% voluntary funding, which is heavily earmarked – meaning WHO has limited flexible funding to shift rapidly in response to outbreaks. The US is the WHO’s largest donor, providing around 15 percent of its total budget. The second-largest donor, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, accounts for around 9 percent.

Provision of global public goods such as WHO funding has been a cornerstone of US leadership. Withdrawing US support for WHO would curtail the global response to a pandemic that has not yet peaked in parts of the US, many African countries, and other areas of the world that are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19 because of weak health systems and mass displacement.

A TRIP Snap Poll conducted between April 27 and May 4 2020, gives a snapshot of how US international relations experts anticipate foreign leaders will perceive the US following COVID-19 (n = 982). Notably, over 90 percent of respondents anticipate leaders will view the US as “less likely” or “much less likely” to provide global public goods. Respondents also expect a decline in perception of the US as a “state that honors its international commitments” and a “state that is widely respected in the international system.”

Figure courtesy of William & Mary TRIP Spring 2020 Snap Poll XIII of 982 international relations experts.

Withdrawing from the WHO will tarnish US reputation and leave a void in global health leadership for others to fill. In the wake of Trump’s comments, China pledged over $2 billion. But private philanthropy – about 20 percent of overall development assistance for health – is also likely to play a more important role. Private giving skyrocketed to $10.9 billion during the Covid-19 response. By comparison, donors contributed a total of just $7.2 billion to assist in the response to other global health emergencies during the previous 18 years. Critics argue private funders, while well intentioned, lack democratic accountability and institutional durability. Bill Gates himself has argued private philanthropy cannot take the place of states in health security. A strong WHO equates to greater health and economic security for the US and the world. US national interests are best served by increasing funding to the WHO and playing a lead role in innovative WHO and global health governance reform efforts following COVID-19.

For more, read Summer Marion’s piece in the Washington Post (May 20, 2020).

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