REPORT: World Health Organization spends more on travel than fighting disease

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The World Health Organization has been begging for more funding while internal documents show that they’re spending approximately $200 million each year on travel. That number dwarfs the amount of money the group spends on improving public health by fighting diseases such as AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

The faltering U.N. health agency has tried introducing new rules to cut down on the costs of travel, but staffers persist in booking business class airplane tickets and rooms in five-star hotels.

In the past year, WHO spent about $71 million on AIDS and hepatitis; $61 million was spent on curbing malaria; and $59 million was invested in stopping the spread of tuberculosis. And despite the fact that Rotary International has successfully reduced polio cases by 99.9 percent worldwide since 1979, WHO is spending approximately $450 million on the same effort every year.

For instance, when WHO director-general Dr. Margaret Chan took a recent trip to Guinea, she stayed in the biggest presidential suite at the Palm Camayenne hotel in Conakry, which charges guests more than $1,000 per night. The agency noted that her hotels are sometimes paid for by the host country, but they declined to say who paid for that particular trip.

The agency’s 7,000 staffers apparently take liberties when they travel, said Nick Jeffreys, WHO’s director of finance, noting, “We don’t trust people to do the right thing when it comes to travel.”

He added that the agency couldn’t be sure that the travel was even warranted and has low expectations that staffers might look for the cheapest tickets. “People don’t always know what the right thing to do is.”

Ian Smith, executive director of Chan’s office, blamed the chair of WHO’s audit committee for letting misbehavior slide. “We, as an organization, sometimes function as if rules are there to be broken and that exceptions are the rule rather than the norm,” he said.

A memorandum sent to Chan and other top leaders earlier in the year was announced in all-caps with the subject, “ACTIONS TO CONTAIN TRAVEL COSTS”. The memo explained that WHO was under pressure from its member countries to save money, but compliance with rules that travel be booked in advance was “very low”. The memo acknowledged that travel is part of their job, but it called for staffers to demonstrate that “we are serious about managing this appropriately.” However, this advice went unheeded as staffers continued to ignore the rules.

WHO, which has an annual budget of roughly $2 billion, has spent a whopping $803 million on travel expenses since 2013. The organization gets its budget from taxpayer-funded contributions coming out of its 194 member countries, and the largest contributor is the United States.

President Trump once commented in a tweet , “The UN has such great potential,” adding that now it’s “just a club for people to get together, talk, and have a good time. So sad!”

Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on travel for WHO’s top staffers, who insist on flying first class and visiting clinics by helicopter instead of traveling by Jeep while Ebola stricken countries can’t even afford to buy protective boots, gloves and soap for medical workers or purchase body bags for the the dead.

“There’s a huge inequality between the people at the top who are getting helicopters and business class and everyone else who just has to make do,” said Sophie Harman, an expert in global health politics at Queen Mary University in London.

In comparison, Doctors Without Borders mandates that its entire staff of 37,000 aid workers — including its president — fly only in economy class. They budget $43 million on travel annually.

“When you spend the kind of money WHO is spending on travel, you have to be able to justify it,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Global Health Institute at Harvard University. “I can’t think of any justification for ever flying first class.”

WHO’s fundraising efforts could be in jeopardy because of their unrestrained travel costs, said Jha, noting that the organization asked for roughly $100 million to save people in Somalia from an ongoing drought and requested $126 million in April to stop the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen .

“If WHO is not being as lean as possible, it’s going to be hard to remain credible when they make their next funding appeal,” said Jha.

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