America's tussle with WHO: Are UN specialised agencies 'toothless and useless'?

Zhang Yun reminds those bent on reforming UN specialised agencies such as the WHO of the genesis of such institutions. They were never meant to be supranational bodies overriding the authorities of sovereign states, but vehicles, hence “agencies”, that facilitate international cooperation. As politics is part and parcel of the running of any organisation, it can never be fully taken out of the equation. Rather, the question is how politics can be a positive means of achieving fruitful outcomes.
Workers put up a mural on a Northwell Healthcare building featuring healthcare workers who are on the frontlines during the Covid-19 pandemic on 5 May 2020 in New Hyde Park, New York. (Al Bello/Getty Images/AFP)
Workers put up a mural on a Northwell Healthcare building featuring healthcare workers who are on the frontlines during the Covid-19 pandemic on 5 May 2020 in New Hyde Park, New York. (Al Bello/Getty Images/AFP)

On 14 April, the US declared a halt on its funding to the World Health Organisation (WHO) as the latter had experienced "delays" in declaring a public health emergency and was “China-centric”. The suggestion here seemed to be that the United Nations (UN) specialised agency was “politicised”. Then, on 11 May, the US Senate passed a resolution to support Taiwan’s attendance at this year’s World Health Assembly (18-19 May). China retorted that the pandemic was being used to politicise the issue of WHO membership held by sovereign states. These are recent events, but make no mistake, America’s unhappiness with the politicisation of the UN specialised agencies goes back a long way. 

The said agencies and some other countries take a similar but opposite view. They think it is the American attempts to politicise the international agencies that have put multilateralism in dire straits.

In 2019, the US pulled out of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), ostensibly due to the organisation’s anti-Israel politics. Further back in 1974, the US Congress suspended America’s monetary contributions to UNESCO until the organisation passed amendments to some of its anti-Israel resolutions. Then in 1975, the US claimed that it might consider withdrawing two years later from the International Labour Organisation (ILO), as it believed that the latter had been “politicised”. 

Taiwan Health Minister Chen Shih-chung holds a news conference about Taiwan's efforts to get into the World Health Organisation in Taipei, Taiwan, on 15 May 2020. (Ann Wang/Reuters)
Taiwan Health Minister Chen Shih-chung holds a news conference about Taiwan's efforts to get into the World Health Organisation in Taipei, Taiwan, on 15 May 2020. (Ann Wang/Reuters)

The said agencies and some other countries take a similar but opposite view. They think it is the American attempts to politicise the UN specialised agencies that have put multilateralism in dire straits. So who exactly is politicising these agencies? How is politicisation to be defined? Do politics and knowledge (scientific/technical expertise) necessarily stand opposed to each other in these organisations?

Politics integral to running of UN specialised agencies 

There are two false expectations of UN specialised agencies. The first is that authorities on specialised knowledge are completely detached from politics. This thinking presumes that based on self-determination theory, knowledge and technical expertise rejects the presence and value of politics instinctively. The second expectation, ironically, is that these supposedly "apolitical" agencies are expected to perform regulatory functions associated with supranational organisations.

Let us look at the first false expectation. The UN specialised agencies draw their authority not just from international law by virtue of their being part of the UN system; the bulk of their authority is grounded in their knowledge or scientific/technical authority in their respective areas of speciality. Politics is thus taken from the start to be a negative factor that distorts the scientific knowledge factor and render these agencies ineffective. 

If these internationally established organisations are supposed to exist in an apolitical vacuum of knowledge, they would be international academic bodies instead and not true “agencies”. 

However, such an understanding glorifies the knowledge factor and demonises the political factor excessively, making it difficult to have a rational discussion on politicisation. The truth is, the exclusion of politics from specialised agencies is impossible and sometimes even detrimental. Both knowledge and politics are decisive factors of equal importance. 

US President Donald Trump speaks during the daily briefing on Covid-19, in the Brady Briefing Room at the White House on 7 April 2020, in Washington, D.C. Trump announced that the US is cutting its funding to the World Health Organisation because of the “delay” in its response to the coronavirus outbreak, as well as for being “China-centric”. (Mandel Ngan/AFP)
US President Donald Trump speaks during the daily briefing on Covid-19, in the Brady Briefing Room at the White House on 7 April 2020, in Washington, D.C. Trump announced that the US is cutting its funding to the World Health Organisation because of the “delay” in its response to the coronavirus outbreak, as well as for being “China-centric”. (Mandel Ngan/AFP)

The issues that the UN specialised agencies work on seem to be functional and unrelated to politics. Yet many aspects of the work — from the formulation of issues, the determination of problems, project prosecution to budgeting — always lie exposed to the domestic and international political milieu, such that the exclusion of politics can only be an unrealistic fantasy. The idea that knowledge and politics are separable may seem very convincing superficially, but it ignores the fact that the agencies in question are products of politics themselves — that is to say, they develop and evolve within political dynamics — to begin with. If these internationally established organisations are supposed to exist in an apolitical vacuum of knowledge, they would be international academic bodies instead and not true “agencies”. 

The key is to differentiate between politicisation that is harmful to international cooperation, and politicisation that is necessary.  

Also, not all power rivalries in these agencies are distortions of knowledge authority by the political factor. Differences in the member states’ pursuits, beliefs and interests often underlie such rivalries, and politics is required for the modulation of these undercurrents.

In any organisation made up of different individuals or countries, there is always the need for the use of power, which means power rivalries are inevitable. If the label of “politicisation” is slapped onto all such rivalries whenever they emerge, it would be overly simplistic. In any specialised agency with close to 200 sovereign states as its members, it is only normal to have rivalries. The key is to differentiate between politicisation that is harmful to international cooperation, and politicisation that is necessary.  

I must also point out that the effective operation of UN specialised agencies requires the active intervention of politics, not the absolute separation of politics and knowledge. Actual work in the domains that such agencies preside over involves competing interpretations, as well as different ways of handling issues, different proposed solutions. When it comes to choosing between diverse solutions and definitions of issues, the various pursuits of interests on the members’ part are part of the equation, not to mention complications arising from a spectrum of political convictions and sociocultural environments. There is no single, standard answer. However, since a specialised agency must negotiate various interpretations, options and decisions, any final decision made would be the result of having weighed the pros and cons. The act of choosing and its underlying determination of priorities are inevitably a political process. No technical capability or expert can make the choice and the decision automatically. 

This handout image provided by the World Health Organisation on 18 May 2020, shows World Health Organisation Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus delivering a speech during the opening of the World Health Assembly virtual meeting from the WHO headquarters in Geneva, amid the Covid-19 pandemic. (Christopher Black/World Health Organisation/AFP)
This handout image provided by the World Health Organisation on 18 May 2020, shows World Health Organisation Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus delivering a speech during the opening of the World Health Assembly virtual meeting from the WHO headquarters in Geneva, amid the Covid-19 pandemic. (Christopher Black/World Health Organisation/AFP)

Arguably, no consensus can ever be arrived at without political intervention. If we call this politicisation, then such positive politicisation is necessary. The key of the issue is thus how to properly handle the balance between knowledge and politics, so that the two supplement and support each other, and are not set against each other dichotomously. 

Tall order to perform supranational policing role

And then there is the second false expectation. The WHO, a UN specialised agency, is expected to play the role of an international health police like a supranational organisation. Precisely because there is such a false expectation, we see criticisms about the WHO’s ineffectiveness, as well as calls for redesigning and reforming this organisation. 

We need to recognise that in a global system that does not hold any power above and beyond state sovereignty, international cooperation is predicated on the willingness of states to compromise. Hence, for a specialised agency to facilitate cooperation in international health matters, it must first respect the autonomy of nations. Otherwise, nothing can be accomplished.

...the WHO has consistently refrained from making specific, public comments on the internal issues of any particular country.

The organisation is to have no right of judgement over the political systems, ideologies, economic structures, as well as the social, cultural and religious value orientations of the member states. On the contrary, it needs to exhibit great sensitivity over these matters, or it may easily impair its working relationship with the member states and thereby affect cooperation thereafter.  

Thus far into the Covid-19 crisis, the WHO has consistently refrained from making specific, public comments on the internal issues of any particular country. Towards China, the US and any other country, the organisation has only given its evaluations on the counter-pandemic efforts. This is not to say that there are no shortcomings in the ways the countries fight Covid-19. Constructive opinions need to be conveyed, but this has to be done through proper channels and at the right time. Criticisms purely as such do not help to solve problems at all, but would only diminish the member states’ enthusiasm and the WHO’s authority, resulting in a lose-lose situation. 

People are seen practising social distancing in white circles in Domino Park, during the Covid-19 pandemic on 17 May 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Johannes Eisele/AFP)
People are seen practising social distancing in white circles in Domino Park, during the Covid-19 pandemic on 17 May 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Johannes Eisele/AFP)

Imagine this: given that the US is currently the country with the world’s highest number of infected cases and Covid-19 deaths, what would happen if the WHO were to criticise America’s domestic system and governance in relation to fighting the spread of the disease? The reviewing and examination of a country’s shortcomings in domestic governance need to be done only when the viral outbreak has at least stabilised. While the WHO can provide a platform for constructive suggestions and international exchanges, when the pandemic is still actively unfolding, any public criticism by the WHO about the internal governance of its member states would lead to unfavourable outcomes for international cooperation. 

Naturally, precisely because the WHO and other similar specialised agencies are characterised by such non-mandatory authority, they are derided as being “toothless and useless”.

What the WHO can do is to provide leadership in terms of coordination for world public health. With regard to policies each country may adopt for itself, the organisation offers guidance that can serve as reference, and works towards establishing a common understanding between its member states. However, the WHO cannot demand that a country adopts any specific policy. Even resolutions passed by the World Health Assembly can take effect only upon acceptance by the member states. Naturally, precisely because the WHO and other similar specialised agencies are characterised by such non-mandatory authority, they are derided as being “toothless and useless”.

Nevertheless, we need to understand clearly that as long as the system of sovereign states exists, UN specialised agencies will never truly become supranational organisations, and so people will never be satisfied with them. In other words, the issue of reforming these agencies will continue to be relevant.

In the current pandemic, some member states think the WHO should be investigated to ascertain whether or not it has acted with due diligence. Dues-paying member states do indeed have the right to raise such doubts, which have to be addressed in any case. Nevertheless, as a specialised agency in the UN system, the WHO is essentially a bureaucratic organisation. Whether or not it has done its job has to be determined by the World Health Assembly, a decision-making mechanism based on the general participation of all its member states. It is not for one particular member state or a particular subset of member states to decide. 

Acknowledging the imperfection of specialised agencies (inclusive of the WHO) does not mean that we condemn them as ineffective or even that we are to give up on them. Based on the grand premise that cooperation between countries is always difficult to pull off, one thing needs to be considered: without these agencies, international cooperation would only become even harder.

Just look at the ongoing pandemic. The WHO’s guidance, reinforced by the authoritative information it disseminates, has surely made a difference as something of a weathervane in this global crisis.  

This combination created of nine video grabs taken on 18 May 2020 from the website of the World Health Organisation shows (top to bottom, left to right) WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Swiss President Simonetta Sommaruga, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Chinese President Xi Jinping, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa delivering their speech via video link at the opening of the World Health Assembly virtual meeting from the WHO headquarters in Geneva, amid the Covid-19 pandemic. (World Health Organisation/AFP)
This combination created of nine video grabs taken on 18 May 2020 from the website of the World Health Organisation shows (top to bottom, left to right) WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Swiss President Simonetta Sommaruga, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Chinese President Xi Jinping, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa delivering their speech via video link at the opening of the World Health Assembly virtual meeting from the WHO headquarters in Geneva, amid the Covid-19 pandemic. (World Health Organisation/AFP)

As a UN specialised agency, the WHO, which has 194 members, undoubtedly plays an important role in the global governance of public health. The constitution of the WHO states explicitly that the objective of the organisation is “the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health”. This entails that the focus of the WHO’s work primarily leans towards regions that are vulnerable in terms of health matters, such as Africa. 

In the current pandemic, the WHO has continually paid attention and devoted itself to the world’s most vulnerable countries and territories.

On 25 September 2015, 193 countries passed the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, establishing a specific set of Sustainable Development Goals, of which health-related goals form an important part. In the current pandemic, the WHO has continually paid attention and devoted itself to the world’s most vulnerable countries and territories. Without this organisation, it would be hard for us to imagine what other entity could do the same thing. On top of that, the WHO also plays a pivotal role in establishing a mechanism for response coordination from within the UN system, as well as building a network of cooperation with international NGOs (such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation). 

Opposition to negative politicisation

Politics and knowledge have always been the two wheels that keep the WHO and other UN specialised agencies going as they grow. Positive politicisation can be a strong guarantee for the crystallisation of common understandings, and for converting knowledge into effective policies. It is the negative politicisation that we need to oppose. 

On 20 April, the WHO’s Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus proclaimed that political division is fuelling the Covid-19 pandemic, and that without national unity and global solidarity, the worse is ahead of us. I believe the politicisation he spoke of refers to negative politicisation. Bringing politically highly controversial issues into the discussion of the WHO’s agendas only serves to distort the focus of its work. 

Note:

At the virtual meeting of the World Health Assembly (WHA) yesterday, WHO director-general Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that an independent review of the global coronavirus response would begin as soon as possible. But in his statement, US Secretary of State of Health and Human Services Alex Azar said, “In an apparent attempt to conceal this outbreak, at least one member state made a mockery of their transparency obligations, with tremendous costs for the entire world.” On his part, Chinese President Xi Jinping said in his statement that China has acted with “openness, transparency and responsibility” all along. He also pledged that China would provide US$2 billion over two years to help with the Covid-19 response and with economic and social development in affected countries, particularly developing countries. 

US President Trump added after the WHA meeting that the WHO was a"puppet of China", and had "done a very sad job" in its handling of the coronavirus. He also posted on Twitter the letter he sent Tedros dated 18 May, saying that he would make his temporary freeze of US funding to WHO permanent if the latter did not commit to “substantive improvements” within the next 30 days in reforming the organisation. 

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