WHO launches foundation to expand its funding base

The logo of the World Health Organization. Photo by: United States Mission Geneva / CC BY-ND

NAIROBI — The World Health Organization, which has been under pressure to enact reforms, announced on Wednesday the creation of a foundation to broaden its funding base. The aim of the foundation is to attract more sustainable and predictable funding and to simplify the process of accepting philanthropic contributions.

WHO has struggled with flexibility in its funding sources — the majority of its funding from member states and other donors is tightly earmarked for specific programs.

Exclusive: The early stages of the WHO Foundation

In his opening speech, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the WHO Foundation will be established this year. But Devex learns the plan is in its very early stages.

“One of the greatest threats to WHO’s success is the fact that less than 20% of our budget comes in the form of flexible assessed contributions from member states,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during a press conference. “In effect, that means WHO has little discretion over the way it spends its funds — almost 80% of its funds.”

The new foundation, an independent grant-making organization that has been in the works for over two years, aims to increase WHO’s funding base through nontraditional sources, including the general public, individual major donors, and the private sector, Tedros said. He added that WHO is one of the few international organizations that has not received funding from the general public.

Since the new foundation was not yet set up at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, WHO, the United Nations Foundation, the Swiss Philanthropy Foundation, and several others launched the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund to facilitate donations. It has raised more than $214 million from more than 400,000 individuals and companies.

The foundation’s launch comes amid controversy over U.S. President Donald Trump’s threats to make a temporary freeze of American funding to WHO permanent. The U.S. is the agency’s largest donor.

Tedros said the foundation’s launch has “nothing to do with recent funding issues.”

The new foundation, based in Geneva, is legally separate from WHO but will facilitate contributions to the agency, under a memorandum of understanding between the two parties. The foundation is spearheaded by Thomas Zeltner, former secretary of health for Switzerland and director-general of the Swiss National Health Authority.

“One of the greatest threats to WHO’s success is the fact that less than 20% of our budget comes in the form of flexible assessed contributions from member states.”

— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general, WHO

Funding from the foundation will help implement WHO’s general programming, Zeltner said during the press conference. An average of 70% to 80% of the funds will be directly allocated to the WHO secretariat and the remaining funds will go to the agency’s implementing partners.

Tedros will designate a representative to attend the foundation’s board meetings as an observer. WHO will also periodically report to member states on its interactions with the foundation and funds received from it, which will be aligned with WHO’s budget, he added.

While the foundation’s mandate is broader than the coronavirus pandemic and includes global health programming more generally, its initial focus will be on emergencies and pandemic response, according to a WHO press release.

Tedros said he hopes that additional funding raised from the foundation will be used to expand programming for preventing disease, which is currently one of the least funded areas of WHO’s work.

The foundation is in the process of forming a secretariat, expanding its board, and starting its search for a chief executive officer.

About the author

  • Sara Jerving

    Sara Jerving is a global health reporter based in Nairobi. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, and Bloomberg News, among others. Sara holds a master's degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists in 2018, part of a Vice News Tonight on HBO team that received an Emmy nomination in 2018 and received the Philip Greer Memorial Award from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2014. She has reported from over a dozen countries.