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WHO expands health emergency funds, but that may not be enough

Dr. Peter Githua heads towards the patient ward inside the red zone of an Ebola treatment unit (ETU) in Sinje, Grand Cape Mount, Liberia. (UNMEER/Martine Perret)

GENEVA — World Health Organization member states agreed on Wednesday to more than double the group’s emergency fund to $494 million for the next year, as it works to address major gaps in its ability to respond to global health emergencies. Despite the pledge, some people say that more money is not going to be enough.

By doubling funds, the WHO hopes to boost its ability to respond to health emergencies. The newly established health emergencies program would be used to prevent, respond to and help regions recover from health emergencies caused by outbreaks, conflict or disaster.

Critics say that the increased funds are still not much considering the size and scope of the WHO’s work, and they do not help to address the underlying problems that allow health problems to spiral out of control and become emergencies.

It is hard for the WHO to control pandemics when its budget is roughly the same as that of the New York City health department, said Tim Evans of the World Bank during a side event at this week’s World Health Assembly. The total budget for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene for New York City was close to $1.5 billion for 2015. The WHO had a roughly $4 billion budget for 2014 to 2015 biennium. At about $2 billion a year it beats out New York City, but not by much.

Evans’ larger point was to say that the WHO needs more money if it is to prepare for future pandemics. He said that the most important work that he and the World Bank’s health arm are doing is determining how to finance support for global health security. It is unusual to hear one multilateral body, which relies on donor funding, say that another multilateral body needs more money.

Over the past decade, the WHO shifted to more of a technical support role for countries. Much of its most important work in recent years is based on recommendations on proper treatment for diseases. But when countries lacked health-care resources and were hit with an emergency, the WHO was not equipped to provide help in a timely manner, which is what happened with the Ebola outbreak.

WHO hopes that the new emergency program, expanded budget and internal reforms will help in future responses. However, there remain underlying issues that are well beyond the scope of the WHO. Health systems in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone remain weak. Shifting what little resources the countries had to respond to Ebola hurt other health areas, such as malaria prevention and maternal health.

Discussions on the next big outbreak or pandemic need to include all that needs to be done to help the world’s poorest countries deal with the unexpected.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]