With WHO funding on hold, USAID looks to alternate partners

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John Barsa, acting administrator at USAID. Photo by: REUTERS / Adriano Machado

WASHINGTON — With U.S. funding to the World Health Organization frozen for 60 to 90 days while the White House conducts a review of the international body’s response to COVID-19, the U.S. Agency for International Development is looking for alternate partners to carry out health programs that it previously supported through WHO.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, U.S. officials could not confirm who will lead the review of WHO that President Donald Trump announced along with the pause on funding last week, nor could they say what conditions WHO will have to meet in order to see its funding resumed.

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“This pause will not impact our commitment to fight COVID around the world. We are focused on outcomes, and as such we are working with other partners around the world, including community and faith-based organizations, to get the job done,” said James Richardson, director of the Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance Resources.

“It still seems lost on some policymakers how much of a ripple effect this has, including in US programs.”

— Loyce Pace, president and executive director, Global Health Council

“At the end of the day, this should be about saving lives, not about saving a bureaucracy,” Richardson added.

Until the pause is lifted, the Trump administration will refrain from funding any new activities through WHO, according to Richardson.

“We’re not asking for refunds at this point,” he added.

Richardson noted that only 4% of U.S. global health assistance goes to WHO.

“There are plenty of amazing and highly qualified organizations implementing these programs around the world, and to be honest, no organization — or country, for that matter — is owed a single nickel from the American people,” he said.

Some global health experts rejected the idea that the WHO funding freeze is insignificant because the organization receives a relatively small portion of U.S. global health funding — or that its functions could be easily replaced.

“Even if it's a drop in the bucket for the U.S. - one reason why the debate/decision is moot - it's a significant source of funding for WHO, greatly affecting their program of work and immediate response efforts,” wrote Loyce Pace, president and executive director at the Global Health Council, in an email to Devex.

“It still seems lost on some policymakers how much of a ripple effect this has, including in US programs. We're already hearing about service delays and stockouts when it comes to vaccinations, HIV or TB treatment, and the like,” Pace added.

While the Trump administration carries out its review, USAID will attempt to find other implementing partners to take over programs that the agency might have implemented through WHO, according to USAID’s acting administrator, John Barsa.

That process will be aided, Barsa said, by USAID’s existing efforts to diversify its partner base and work with a wider range of organizations.

The agency’s New Partnerships Initiative, launched by former administrator Mark Green, aims to simplify the agency’s funding process and bring new and “underutilized” organizations into the fold. That initiative currently operates in 14 USAID countries, but Barsa said he plans to sign an order next week that will expand the NPI to all of USAID’s country missions.

That expansion of the NPI pilot was going to happen regardless of the pandemic or the freeze of funding to WHO, Barsa said, noting it was fortunate that USAID had “already been thinking along these lines.”

“We’re looking for different partners right now, in terms of work in polio or any number of health issues. Are there other entities — local community-based entities, faith-based organizations — are there other groups that can continue on this work?” Barsa said, adding that part of the assessment taking place during the 60-to-90-day pause includes answering that question.

“At the end of the day, this should be about saving lives, not about saving a bureaucracy.”

— James Richardson, director, Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance Resources

“I have people in our missions, in our Global Health Bureau — we’re looking for new partners right now. It’s good government,” Barsa said.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced an additional $270 million in U.S. funding for the international COVID-19 response, bringing the total amount of U.S. assistance to $775 million. Much of that funding is going to countries where USAID already operates, but some of it is targeting countries that do not usually see U.S. assistance.

On April 11, USAID announced $50 million in assistance to Italy, for example.

“Our expanded presence in other countries demonstrates the extraordinary nature of this pandemic,” Barsa said Wednesday.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.