It's time for Congress to act on WHO reform 
© Getty Images

This week, the Biden administration missed the deadline to nominate a candidate to challenge embattled World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in his quest for a second five-year term. This unforced diplomatic error, one welcomed in Beijing, all but assures Tedros’ reelection. It also confirms the Biden administration lacks a serious strategy to overhaul the beleaguered global health body. At a time of skyrocketing COVID-19 infection rates and still unanswered questions about the virus’ origins, the U.S. has a responsibility to address the WHO’s failings. Enter Congress.

The need for action has been building since the pandemic’s first days, when many began to question Tedros’ perceived deference to the Chinese Communist Party. After meeting with Xi Jinping in January 2020, Tedros praised China’s pandemic mismanagement, claiming that Beijing’s response had set a “new standard.” In the intervening months, the WHO chief hewed closely to China’s preferred political narratives about the pandemic and its origins. Over Washington’s objections, Tedros also excluded Taiwan from the WHO’s 2021 annual agenda setting meeting. This particular incident highlighted Beijing’s outsized influence over Tedros, even though China’s contributions account for less than 1.5 percent of the WHO’s budget.   

But, in a move designed to alleviate Western concerns, Tedros moderated his messaging in the lead up to this month’s nominating deadline. After a Dutch documentary exposed how the lead scientist investigating the WHO’s COVID-19 origins altered the team’s final report in response to Chinese pressure, Tedros admitted it had been “premature” to rule out the so-called lab leak theory. Weeks later, Tedros expressed support for a European-led initiative to negotiate a new global health treaty. The proposal, which Beijing and Moscow are actively undermining, includes plans for a new dispute-resolution mechanism to penalize countries which refuse to cooperate with future pandemic investigations.  

ADVERTISEMENT

Apart from these minor deviations, however, there is scant evidence that Tedros’ affinity for China has lessened. This is unsurprising given Tedros’ history of championing Beijing’s interests, first as Ethiopia’s health minister and later as foreign minister. A review of United Nations (UN) records reveals that Chinese aid contributions to Tedros’ native Ethiopia substantially increased when he was in top leadership positions. The same goes for China’s contributions to the WHO after Tedros’ election in 2017, one preceded by intense Chinese lobbying on Tedros’ behalf. Tedros’ Chinese ties also include links to Xi’s wife, Peng Liyuan, who serves as a WHO Goodwill Ambassador.  

During their Senate confirmation hearings, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield endorsed WHO reform as a means to combat Chinese malign influence and better prepare for the next pandemic. And yet, no such reform agenda has materialized. The administration has also not explained why it abdicated in nominating a qualified candidate to lead the WHO, even while it has put forward candidates to lead other UN bodies seen drifting into China’s orbit. Despite this inaction, Congress still has an opportunity to affect change.  

WHO leaders have long bristled at demands that the organization align its operations with donors’ priorities and donors have been hesitant to earmark funds for specific projects, even though doing so would greatly increase accountability over the WHO’s scope of work. As the WHO’s top funder, Congress has both the power and the responsibility to use its appropriations and earmarking authorities to set a clear reform agenda for the international body.  

Specifically, legislators should carefully consider the White House’s record-setting $6 trillion 2022 budget request, which increases voluntary contributions to the WHO beyond the $300 million donated in 2020. The budget also recommends using taxpayer dollars to subsidize the purchase of ineffective Chinese vaccines for use in the WHO’s troubled global vaccine initiative. Such mismanagement is consistent with a recent audit that revealed the WHO spent millions of donor dollars procuring defective Chinese personal protective equipment. Rather than reforming the WHO, Biden’s budget request simply subsidizes Tedros’ mismanagement — a clear opportunity for congressional oversight. 

In attaching strings to donations which fund huge swathes of the WHO’s operations — from human resources and pandemic surveillance to PPE procurement and its inspector general — Washington could reshape those endeavors with or without Tedros’ buy-in. Funding could also be tied to restoring Taiwan’s observer status, a move certain to frustrate Beijing. And that’s just for starters.  

Blindly increasing U.S. funding for the WHO is a recipe for disincentivizing reform and ensuring that China can continue shaping the organization to suit its ends. Congress can and should take over this process, starting with demanding a better return on our investment and leveraging earmarks to overhaul the WHO. Doing so is about more than just dollars. It’s also common sense.  

Craig Singleton, a national security expert and former U.S. diplomat, is an adjunct China fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a non-partisan think tank focused on national security and foreign policy issues.