WHO: what is the truth about the current situation?

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The Executive Board of the World Health Organization (WHO) has recently ended a three-day special session to discuss radical WHO reforms. The Board agreed that WHO’s five core areas of work should concentrate on health development, health security, strengthening health systems and institutions, generating evidence on health trends and determinants, and convening for better health.

Specific proposals given the go-ahead include:

  • Developing criteria for priority setting of WHO’s work in global public health;
  • Engaging an increasing number of public health actors, including foundations, civil society organizations, partnerships and the private sector;
  • Establishing a contingency fund for the work of WHO in public health emergencies;
  • Clarifying of roles and responsibilities between country offices, regional offices and headquarters;
    Developing an approach to independent evaluation.

According to WHO’s media briefing about the special meeting, in their regular meeting in January 2012, “the Executive Board will review, among other things, a proposed mechanism to increase predictability and flexibility of financing for the Organization.

The difference between the optimism of the WHO media briefing and desperate accounts in Swiss newspapers, which state that WHO is currently US$ 300 million in debt, has cut its bi-annual budget for 2012-2013 by about one billion dollars and is making 300 Geneva-based staff redundant by the end of the year—causing many of its staff to despair, is perplexing.
Geneva lawyer, Matthew Parish, who is representing WHO staff facing redundancy recently revealed what he describes as a catalogue of errors over job cuts at WHO He also says the cases he is fighting carry payouts of many thousands of francs—something the WHO may not even have the money to cover. Christy Feig, WHO’s director of communications says no WHO department has made any decision to move staff yet but admits that the strong franc and high cost of living in the city are biting into WHO’s budget.
Andrew Cassels, WHO strategy has gone one step further and admitted that WHO is currently looking at the costs of different locations, as one of the most expensive locations is Geneva.

For all those who care deeply about equitable global health overseen by a strong WHO, I sincerely hope that these convergent accounts of what is currently happening at WHO can be honestly and transparently dealt with.

Rhona MacDonald is a freelance editor for PLoS Medicine.

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