Health and Science

WHO worries Trump pulling funds may hurt emergency aid program meant to help 'fragile' countries

Key Points
  • WHO officials said they are worried their emergency programs will suffer if President Trump permanently pulls U.S. funding from the international agency.
  • Most U.S. funding goes directly to the program that helps countries in "all sorts of fragile and difficult settings," a WHO official said.
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World Health Organization says emergency programs could suffer if U.S. cuts funding

World Health Organization officials said Wednesday they are worried their emergency programs will suffer if President Donald Trump permanently pulls U.S. funding from the international agency.

Most funding from the United States goes directly out to the program that helps countries in "all sorts of fragile and difficult settings," Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO's health emergencies program, said during a press conference at the agency's Geneva headquarters. 

"We'll obviously have to work with other partners to ensure those funds can still flow," Ryan said. "This is going to be a major implication for delivering essential health services to some of the most vulnerable people in the world, and we trust developed donors will, if necessary, step in to fill that gap."

The agency's budget is already "very, very small" at about $2.3 billion a year, WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

"That's very small, equivalent to an annual budget of a medium-sized hospital in the developed world," he said. "Imagine a budget of a medium-sized hospital in a developed world for WHO, which is actually working in the whole world. So that's small."

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) attends the virtual 73rd World Health Assembly (WHA) during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Geneva, Switzerland, May 19, 2020.
Christopher Black | WHO | Handout via Reuters

The WHO's funding runs in two-year budget cycles. For the 2018 and 2019 funding cycle, the U.S. paid a $237 million required assessment as well as $656 million in voluntary contributions, averaging $446 million a year and representing about 14.67% of its total budget, according to spokesman Tarik Jasarevic. 

Earlier this week, Trump threatened to permanently cut off U.S. funding of the WHO. In a letter Monday, he said that if the WHO "does not commit to major substantive improvements within the next 30 days, I will make my temporary freeze of United States funding to the World Health Organization permanent and reconsider our membership in the organization."

A day later, the president said the international agency needs to "clean up" its act.

The WHO has "to do a better job," Trump told reporters Tuesday during a White House meeting about American farmers. "They have to be much more fair to other countries, including the United States, or we are not going to be involved with them anymore. We will do it a separate way."

When asked about the letter, Tedros simply said: "We have received the letter and we are looking into it."

Ryan said "you might want to" ask the U.S. in terms of what it is exactly looking to see from the agency.  

Trump has repeatedly criticized the WHO's response to the coronavirus, which has hit the U.S. worse than any other country, amid scrutiny of his own administration's response to the pandemic.

The WHO started sounding the alarm on the outbreak in China in mid-January. On March 11, WHO officials declared the outbreak a pandemic, when there were just 121,000 global cases. There are now close to 5 million global cases and roughly 325,000 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.