History of U.S.-WHO Relationship Shows Long Involvement

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

What is WHO and what do they do?

The World Health Organization (WHO) was founded in 1945, just three years after the formation of the United Nations (UN). They were to act as an arm of the UN, their purpose, according to the WHO’s constitution was “to act as the directing and coordinating authority on international health work.” Over the institution’s lifetime, WHO has more than tripled in size, its initial 55 member states now totaled at a whopping 194. Currently, the WHO has a staff consisting of 7,000 members and has offices in over 150 countries.

Similar to most other UN organizations, WHO is governed by its member states; they have no legal jurisdiction to force nations to cooperate with their recommendations, and are not allowed to enter countries without agreement. Rather, they can simply recommend health policies and guidelines, provide advice, guidance, and help to track disease outbreaks.

Over the years, WHO managed to create vaccines that prevent more than 20-life threatening diseases, those immunizations saving 2-3 million lives every year. They also help to contain viruses and diseases, the WHO Global Alert and Response system continually tracking the spread and development of outbreaks of epidemic prone diseases around the world. WHO wrote, “In recent years, we have investigated 200 to 250 outbreaks each year. On average, 5 to 15 of these yearly outbreaks require a major international response.”

So although nations are not legally bound to follow the advice or guidelines WHO provides, most do. Member states note their impressive track record, and the benefits and aid they have received in the past, or are currently accepting.

How has the U.S. been involved with WHO?

The United States has played a major role in WHO, ratifying their previous signing to join on August 8th, 1945. Since then, the U.S. has made itself the largest voluntary donor, contributing the greatest sums of any country within the organization. The U.S. pledged to donate $893 million to WHO’s budget from 2018 to 2019. The second largest donor country, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, contributed $435 million, a little less than half as much.

The U.S invests WHO funds in specific health-related areas, such as polio eradication, increasing access to essential health and nutritional services, and vaccine-preventable disease. In Yemen, thanks to the support of partners like the United States Agency for International Development, WHO set up stabilization centers, delivering nutrition kits and training health workers on how to manage severe acute malnutrition. WHO and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have also worked collaboratively to develop the AIDS Free Framework, which focuses on scaling up care and treatment for children and adolescents in countries with the biggest pediatric treatment gaps. WHO wrote on their website that they were, “grateful to the United States for its leadership in global health, including health security, polio, primary health care and maternal child health.”

What are the Trump administration’s issues with the organization?

Many of WHO’s longtime critics have argued that member states hold different spheres of influence over the organization. Large donors like the U.S. are often seen as having an unequal amount of sway over WHO. This has historically caused friction, and in more recent developments, similar concerns have been directed towards WHO’s relationship with China. People are wondering whether WHO remains sufficiently independent, given China’s growing power, and wealth.

These claims swiftly lit a fire under the White House, with the Trump Administrations messaging quickly changing, mouthing dissent towards the organization seemingly out of nowhere.

In the early months of COVID-19 development (January-March 2020), President Trump praised both China and WHO’s response to the pandemic more than a couple of times. One defining example of this was on February 7, when Trump was posed the question, “are you concerned that China is covering up the full extent of coronavirus?” In response to this he said, “No. China is working very hard. Late last night, I had a very good talk with President Xi, and we talked about mostly about the coronavirus. They’re working really hard, and I think they are doing a very professional job. They’re in touch with the World Organization. CDC also. We’re working together. But World Health is working with them. CDC is working with them. I had a great conversation last night with President Xi. It’s a tough situation. I think they’re doing a very good job.”

However, Trump’s tune changed mid-April, when he tweeted that China had not reported all the information it had about COVID-19 to the WHO. He also claimed that China had “pressured the WHO to mislead the world.” He continued on this stride, later adding that the WHO needed to “demonstrate independence from China” and that if WHO did not “commit to major substantive improvements in the next 30 days,” he would permanently revoke U.S. funding.

As medical facilities, nonprofits, charities, and experts advised against pulling out of WHO during a global pandemic, Trump pulled US funding on May 29th, 2020.

What does it mean now that the U.S. is leaving the organization?

In the simplest terms, this action creates repercussions for the U.S. and other nations around the globe. COVID-19 tracking, testing, and research efforts will all be slowed due to this decrease in funding.

A significant portion of WHO’s budget is now gone, and the globe waits to see if other nations will increase their donations to fill in the widening gap.

Although Trump has pulled funding, a complete withdrawal requires a one year notice. This means that the stopping of all U.S. monetary contributions will not take full effect until July 6th, 2021, when, depending upon November 2020 elections, someone new may be in office. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said if voted into office, he would revoke Trump’s withdrawal from WHO.

The former Vice president wrote that rejoining WHO would be one of his first steps as president. He tweeted soon after Trump made his announcement that, “Americans are safer when America is engaged in strengthening global health. On my first day as President, I will rejoin the @WHO and restore our leadership on the world stage.”

Though it remains to be seen whether or not the U.S. will formally leave or rejoin WHO, Trump’s isolationist approach has been noted by nations across the world. Global leaders spoke out strongly against the U.S. ending commitments to WHO amidst a global pandemic.

In a recent conference, the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, said in a joint statement, “The WHO needs to continue being able to lead the international response to pandemics, current and future. For this, the participation and support of all is required and very much needed.”

These words of dissent were echoed in more than one corner of the world, with the South African Health Minister Zweli Mkhize saying, “Certainly, when faced with a serious pandemic, you want all nations in the world to be particularly focused […] on one common enemy.”

Through Teen Lenses: Would you pull out or stay in of WHO as the United States?

Well, I kind of understand where [Trump] is coming from, with the whole, we need to focus on the U.S. mantra. But, without the access and the stuff that [WHO] has, we wouldn’t be able to have the same amount of knowledge about the Coronavirus. When we are in [WHO] we have access to stuff that is happening all over the world. To be a good country, we need to know what is taking place all around the globe, and hopefully learn how we can prevent this from happening in other places, like it is in our own country. So I would definitely stay with the organization, and not pull out. Even though focusing on us is good, staying in the WHO is also super important. I feel like we need to have this connection to this organization, it is important to understand health, all over the world, and understand how people are doing. It helps us in the long run. There could be another virus that happens, and if we don’t have access to the information on what’s happening, where it’s coming from, and even how to prevent it, then we are screwed. Mia Marlow, 15, Rising Sophomore, Tartan High, Woodbury, MN
This is a global pandemic, and I feel like everyone involved is obligated to help in some way shape or form. There may be some benefits to focusing on the U.S. alone, but to poorer nations, that would not aid them at all. The world needs help. I have always heard that you are as strong as your weakest link, and if we can help those weaker nations, the global community will be able to overcome these trying times. Seeing as the US is one of the main investors in WHO, I think that it will have a significant impact on people around the world. They will be affected by that lack of funding. In this sense, I feel that stronger together is probably more relevant now, than it ever has been before. Moriah W, 15, Rising Sophomore, MN
I would say, globalism. [America] can always donate less if more money is needed. It’s not like we need to pull out completely, because if we are helping the global population benefits are still circling around and coming back to us, helping Americans, too. I don’t get it. If we need the money, we could donate less, not necessarily pull all of the way out. Breonna Methner, 15, Rising Sophomore, MN

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