Exclusive: The early stages of the WHO Foundation

Gaudenz Silberschmidt, WHO director for health and multilateral partnerships, external relations. Photo by: PAHO / CC BY-NC

GENEVA — Even as World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced at the 72nd World Health Assembly that the WHO Foundation would be set up this year, Devex has learned the foundation is in very early stages of discussion, and member states have very little information.

“To broaden our donor base, I am … pleased to announce that the WHO Foundation will be established this year, which will enable us to generate funding from previously untapped sources,” he said in the speech before member states on Monday.

Tedros had already floated the idea of a WHO foundation in January, during the 144th Executive Board Meeting. It’s part of the set of recommendations the senior management received from staff, along with the establishment of a WHO academy, he said.

But the details about the foundation’s structure, governance, or operating model, and even legal status, are still in the very nascent stages, WHO officials told Devex. A senior advisory group, which includes “individuals who know the organization well,” is working on the finer details of what the foundation might look like, said Dr. Gaudenz Silberschmidt, WHO director for health and multilateral partnerships, external relations.

One of the options is to set up a foundation based in Geneva, with a “network of contracts with other foundations” that allows it to receive tax-deductible contributions from multiple jurisdictions, and with “totally flexible” financing, he said.

But Silberschmidt stopped short from revealing any more details.

“Since we have discussed neither with member states nor with Dr. Tedros, I don't want to go into details of that business case,” he said in an interview. The chair of the advisory group will still need to discuss the business case with Tedros, he added.

WHO officials emphasized that the foundation, if and when it is set up, will be “totally independent” of WHO, thus no longer requiring approval from the World Health Assembly. But it may be linked “by contract to WHO” to help raise money for the organization, such as via the general public or high net worth individuals, complementing the U.N. agency’s resource mobilization strategy, said Silberschmidt. WHO aims to raise $14.1 billion for 2019-2023 to deliver on its triple-billion targets.

That fundraising will be “not exclusively but mainly” for WHO, said Silberschmidt, who recalled how in WHO’s 13th general program of work, the goal is to advocate for funding not just for WHO, but other global health actors.

This concept was touted by Tedros even before he officially took office. In his first press conference after winning the election for director-general in 2017, he argued for a “bigger envelope” for global health, one that takes into account the larger global health agenda, not just WHO financing.

In addition, Silberschmidt said, “legally, you can't set up an external foundation just to do [fundraising] only for WHO.”

With details still being hashed out, however, it’s unclear when exactly the foundation will come into fruition. If and when the plan pushes through, the foundation will need startup financing to start operating. That money, however, will not come from WHO, said the WHO director.

“It will not be created by WHO itself. It will not be financed by WHO itself,” said Silberschmidt. “It should really be external investments helping to set up this foundation.”

The little information available on the foundation is keeping member states cautious about the idea.

“What we've seen in the way WHO has been funded and the way WHO has raised funds, the emergency seems to have been one area that has received sort of funding and there's been a bit of traction there. So I don't know whether … there's appetite for multiple structures to be established,” Precious Matsoso, the director general for South Africa’s National Department of Health, told Devex.

“You have Global Fund, you have Unitaid, you've got Gavi, you know. Yet another foundation is going to be [set up], another funding mechanism. Is there appetite for that? We don't know. We need to see the detail, but we also need to understand what [Tedros] means,” she added.

The foundation advisory group did not immediately respond to a request for more information about the different models it is looking into or what stage it is at in discussions of the plan for the foundation.

About the author

  • Ravelo jennylei

    Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.