WHO Controversy: Is The Cash-Strapped UN Health Agency Splurging On Travel?

The World Health Organization (WHO) may be spending more on staff travel than on major public health initiatives such as AIDS or malaria, according to internal documents.

The documents, obtained by the Associated Press, revealed that the strapped U.N. health agency spends about $200 million annually on travel than what is allotted individually for primary health issues. In 2016, for instance, WHO spent around $71 million on AIDS and hepatitis, and $61 million on malaria.

WHO’s Travel Spending Under Fire

The health agency is known to plead for more funding to better respond to the world’s health crises and emergencies. Recently, it introduced rules to control its internal travel budget, with senior officials blasting some staffers internally for booking business-class flights and five-star accommodations.

“We don’t trust people to do the right thing when it comes to travel,” said WHO director of finance Nick Jeffreys in an in-house seminar back in September 2015, a video of which was accessed by AP.

On a recent trip to Guinea to laud health workers for their anti-Ebola efforts in West Africa, WHO director-general Margaret Chan was criticized for staying in the largest presidential suite at the Palm Camayenne, a hotel located in Conakry. The suite is advertised to cost travelers $1,008 per night.

WHO was quick to say that Chan’s overnight stays cost the same as those of other WHO travelers — 212 euros, or about $240. Yet they declined to comment on who or what office paid for the suite, and said that host countries sometimes pay for accommodations.

Chan spent more than $370,000 in travel in one year, as outlined in a classified 25-page analysis of WHO expenses identifying the agency’s top 50 spenders.

A previous memo was sent to top WHO leaders such as Chan, containing the subject “ACTIONS TO CONTAIN TRAVEL COSTS.” It complained of “very low” compliance with travel rules and asserted pressure from member countries for the agencies to spend less.

Travel Is Important, But…

WHO sent a statement to the AP, noting that the nature of its work usually requires staff travel.

It said that its costs had already been reduced 14 percent in 2016 versus the preceding year, when travel costs were high because of the Ebola outbreak that ravaged West Africa. Still, during the Ebola crisis, some experts hit the agency for not shaving costs when the three stricken nations were deprived of basic needs such as protective gloves and boots for health workers.

AP also obtained an internal analysis from March that showed compliance rate for advanced travel bookings was only at 28 to 59 percent.

The health agency has shelled out $803 million in travel expenses since 2013.

It draws its estimated $2 billion yearly budget from tax-funded shares from 194 member countries. The United States remains the largest contributor to this fund.

UNICEF, the U.N.’s children’s agency, spent $140 million on travel last year. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), on the other hand, would not reveal travel costs but prohibits staff from flying business class unless they have a medical issue warranting it.

Doctors Without Borders, too, makes the same explicit warning to staff regarding business-class flights. It spends around $43 million a year on travel.

In its election on Tuesday, three finalists are now vying for the top post at the WHO. They are British physician David Nabarro, Ethiopian former health minister Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, and Pakistani doctor Sania Nishtar.

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