WHO fraud, harassment cases on the rise

The World Health Organization logo at its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo by: REUTERS / Denis Balibouse

GENEVA — The World Health Organization’s Office of Internal Oversight Services is dealing with increased cases of fraud and other misconduct and wrongdoing, raising concerns among member states.

The office is currently dealing with 167 cases, the majority of which were cases reported in 2018, according to the internal auditor report presented at the 72nd World Health Assembly on Thursday. Most of the cases are about fraud, failure to comply with professional standards, and harassment — including sexual harassment and abuse.

Fraud cases were up 83% from 2017, a number of which related to procurement, health insurance, and travel. Cases relating to staff failure to comply with professional standards was up 280%. These cases included allegations of unauthorized external activities, conflicts of interest, failure to honor private obligations, confidentiality breaches, and other types of wrongdoing, according to the report.

Harassment cases were up 92%, while sexual harassment cases jumped to 233% — from three cases in 2017 to 10 in 2018. There’s also an increased number of cases of sexual exploitation and abuse (3), as well as retaliation (4), compared to just 1 each in 2017.

“In comparison with the 82 cases received in 2017, there was a significant increase in the number of cases of fraud, failure to comply with professional standards, harassment and sexual harassment in 2018,” the report said. “This increase is consistent with the situations experienced by other international organizations during 2018 and, in the opinion of the Office, is mainly the result of the increased focus on prevention activities, such as mandatory training, and fraud awareness activities conducted by the Office or other departments.”

Of the 28 cases OIOS investigated in 2018, 20 were substantiated, meaning there was sufficient evidence for the allegations. The substantiated cases mostly involved staff from WHO’s regional and country offices. A number of instances involved WHO staff forging medical invoices to obtain staff health insurance benefits. In one case, the forgery amounted to over $97,000. There was also one case of a male staff member who sexually harassed a female intern.

Member states raised concerns on the increase in cases and called on WHO to take the situation seriously by sufficiently staffing the oversight office and implementing effective management in handling the cases. At the meeting, the representative from Thailand expressed concern that the current complaint caseload will require a total of 1,646 days, or almost five years, to complete. As of the end of 2018, there were only six investigators handling reported cases, which includes only four full-time staff.

“This slow progress of case management could lead to more wrongdoings if root causes have not been resolved,” the representative said.

The representative from the United Kingdom meanwhile asked the WHO Secretariat about the reason behind the increase in cases.

“Over half of these are procurement-related fraud. We have seen positive changes in recent years to WHO's procurement approved including more centralized approved processes and better governance. We would therefore welcome the secretariat[‘s] views on why cases are increasing and what WHO will do to address these,” the representative said.

In response, David Webb, director at OIOS, said the increase in reports of alleged wrongdoing and misconduct is a trend happening in other U.N. organizations, not only WHO, as a result of raised awareness and advocacy on the issues.

“If we think in 2014 we received reports of concern from 22 locations across the organization to countries, if you like, last year, we received reports of concern from 47, which means that the reporting mechanism, the trust in the system that matters will be dealt with, is improving,” he said.

“I don't see it as a negative phenomenon. The adverse impact on us, as member states have noted, is the capacity that the office has to deal with these issues timely,” he added.

The oversight office conducted training sessions on sexual harassment prevention among staff and interns in 2018, as a result of the increased case reporting of sexual harassment. Trainings were also conducted to raise staff awareness on fraud in procurement, said Raul Thomas, WHO assistant director-general for business operations.

WHO’s Chef de Cabinet Bernhard Schwartlander, meanwhile, reiterated the organization’s commitment to “zero tolerance on any form of harassment.” He said management has already engaged in the process to identify how to strengthen the organization’s investigation functions.

“Given the increase in reports, we simply don't seem to get ahead of the game, and this is what in turn led us to invite, through a tendering process, consultants to help us to thoroughly review how this whole function could be set up in a way that it looks into the future and allows us to act very speedily at the highest level as a best in class function,” he said.

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.