Australia puts WHO, multilaterals under the microscope with new aid policy

The Australian aid program will be placing a more critical eye on the deliverables of multilateral institutions. Photo by: Gemma Haines / DFAT / CC BY

CANBERRA — Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne used an address to the Australian National University on June 16 to deliver criticism to the politics of the United Nations and World Health Organization, telling the audience the COVID-19 pandemic had “drawn attention to the strengths and the weaknesses of the U.N. system.”

“We cannot let the vital and practical work that the WHO does on the ground be overshadowed by questions of the approach of its headquarters in Geneva,” she said, calling for a more “independent and transparent” WHO.

Could Australia have the power to achieve change in the multilateral system?

The speech comes shortly after the release of Australia’s new aid policy in May, which has transitioned the aid program to focus capacity on responding to COVID-19 in the Pacific, Timor-Leste, and Indonesia.

Within Australia, the speech has been seen as cementing the country’s position as a middle power that can have more influence on the global stage.

“From this standpoint, it’s possible that we will see Australia emerge as a leader in health diplomacy,” Charlotte Owens, policy manager at Young Australians in International Affairs, told Devex.

How could the US withdraw from WHO?

What's the procedure for withdrawing membership of the WHO? Devex spoke to the health organization's former legal counsel and a U.S. foreign policy expert.

But questions remain as to how the new aid policy will be operationalized, and whether multilateral institutions that do not meet Australian objectives will face budget cuts in an aid program that is not expected to see a boost from previous forecasts.

Working outside the multilateral system

According to the new Australian aid policy document, health security is the key pillar of this new program. But Payne’s speech focused on other elements of this pivot in Australia’s engagement post-COVID: an aid program that assesses multilateral institutions and their capacity to deliver on Australia’s aid and foreign policy objectives.

“Our global programs and work with multilateral organisations will be regularly assessed to ensure they deliver against the Partnerships for Recovery objectives,” the document reads.

Although Payne’s discussion of WHO said that there was “no other institution that can marshal collective efforts to improve health security across the globe,” she also said that Australia was working on partnerships supporting global health outside of the traditional multilateral structure.

According to Payne, Australia is seeing partnerships with “like-minded” countries outside the U.N. system, already creating “minilateral” groupings to support COVID-19 responses that it hopes will continue.

The announcement from the U.S. in May that it intends to terminate the relationship with WHO was not criticized by Payne, who instead saw this as an opportunity for Australia to expand global health partnerships beyond the structures of the U.N. system.

“In relation to contributions to international health and particularly world health security, the one thing that the United States has said and made clear to me and others who have raised these issues is their concerns are directed at the WHO,” she said.

“They are not, in fact, a diminution in their eyes of the importance of contributing strongly in world health security. And they have made very clear they continue, they intend to continue, to do that. We have advanced the case for a strong interest in the Indo-Pacific in that regard.”

Placing a critical eye

In October last year, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison asked the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to audit Australia's engagement in key multilateral institutions, with the aim of determining how they “protect and promote” Australian national interests.

Over 100 areas of operation and interest to Australia were analyzed as part of the assessment, Payne explained, with the results — “closely examined at the most senior levels of government” — suggesting that the structure was important in advancing Australia’s national interests.

“The audit also recognized the pressure these bodies are under, and that at times, their performance has struggled to deliver on their agreed mandates,” she said. “Notwithstanding the limitations identified by the audit, Australia's interests are not served by stepping away and leaving others to shape global order for us.”

The focus for Australia in influencing the multilateral system will be directed in three areas: institutional rules that aim to maintain sovereignty, peace, curb “excessive” use of power, and enable international trade and investment; international standards for sectors considered vital to post-COVID-19 economic recovery; and the norms that underpin human rights, gender equality, and the rule of law.

The U.N. systems, she said, also need to enable “clear, fast, reliable information” across borders to facilitate decision-making. Payne said WHO in particular needs to “serve as bulwarks against disinformation.”

How this will all be operationalized within the aid program, how institutions will continue to be assessed, and whether some underperforming bodies are at risk of reduced or no funding is unclear.

“We’re in the very early stage of having reviewed the audit itself,” Payne said. But she did suggest that a range of in-country posts could be used to influence multilateral outcomes.

Under previous aid cuts, there has been a reduction in funds delivered to the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS. Alex Hawke, minister for international development and the Pacific, stated that multilateral partnerships will be focused on their ability to deliver for the Indo-Pacific. The Green Climate Fund is one partnership Australia has previously found to be unsuitable to its new goals.

US says it will cut WHO funding. What happens next?

The U.S. has yet to issue a clear directive or guidance on how it would apply funding cuts to the World Health Organization. Global health experts explain what scenarios might soon play out.

There are multilateral institutions that are identified by the new policy as “trusted” partners, but what this means on budget safety is still unclear.

“We will provide ongoing humanitarian assistance through trusted multilateral partners, including the World Health Organization, World Food Programme, United Nations Children’s Fund, UN Women, and United Nations Population Fund, to save lives, address human suffering and protect the most vulnerable during the pandemic,” the document reads.

The response to the speech within Australia

Australia is one of WHO’s minor financial players, contributing 1.1% of the total WHO budget for the 2018-19 financial year. Owens said the speech was the latest in a line of evidence of Australia’s ability to lead in a time of crisis and influence international governance — with Payne’s criticism justified.

“Payne struck a fine line between constructively criticizing the WHO for mismanagement and a lack of transparency, whilst also affirming that a global, coordinated response to the pandemic is essential,” she said. “The Minister provided nuance to the debate by calling on international organizations to be fit for purpose so that multilateralism can be given the opportunity to succeed.”

But could Australia have the power to achieve change in the multilateral system?

Lai-Ha Chan, senior lecturer in international relations at the University of Technology Sydney, told Devex that Australia needed to be conscious of the structure of the U.N. systems. While leaders are politically elected, the structure provides stakeholders with information and detail.

“Research has also shown that international organizations are not necessarily manipulated by major powers,” she said. “The secretariats are filled by relatively independent global civil servants and specialists. This has required leaders of the WHO and other similar international institutions to give reasons for their decisions, and stakeholders can take issue with the logic behind the decisions.”

If Australia intended to create change, Chan said, it would require partnerships. At the World Health Assembly, Australia’s attempt at leadership — calling for an independent and impartial investigation of the COVID-19 pandemic — received push-back from China, a sign of further challenges the country will face.

“Since the US is retreating its responsibility from multilateral institutions, Australia cannot ally with the US foreign policy nor rely on its partnership with the US without any qualification,” Chan said. “On the other hand, with a rising assertive China and its coercive economic sanction, Australia should situate itself in a network of other middle powers and work in concert with them to influence multilateral institutions.”

For Anthony Zwi, professor of global health and development at the University of New South Wales, the role Australia should be playing is in standing for key development, transparency, and accountability objectives Payne outlined, but also supporting the significant contributions that “financially constrained and politically targeted organizations like WHO” perform.

But the biggest concern is what happens if multilateral institutions don’t stack up to Australia’s standards, Zwi said, telling Devex that the new policy highlights an expectation from Payne that Australian funding to multilateral institutions will need to directly support Australia’s objectives.

“There certainly is a risk that Australia will further reduce funds to specific multilateral institutions,” Zwi told Devex. “It sees its development funding as supporting the delivery of diplomatic, trade, and security objectives.”

While Zwi believes that Australian funding to WHO in particular is likely to be safe, he would not be surprised if Australian funds were channeled to specific programs and activities that Australia sees as in its own topics and region or countries of interest.

“This may well come with less public communication of Australia’s expectations about how the WHO is expected to operate into the future,” Zwi said.

If there were any concerns about funding reductions in response to questions of impartiality, Chan believes the impact would be on the security of global health.

“Without sufficient funding and support, the WHO simply could not function as a world-leading organization in public health,” she said. “The organization has about 7,000 workers spread over many countries in the world, their role, among others, is to monitor and develop health policy in particular areas. Without enough funding, their capacity to alert the world of any outbreak will be diminished.”

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.