The primary role of the World Health Organization (WHO) is to “direct and coordinate international health within the United Nations’ system.” But a new report finds that the UN agency is directing more money toward travel expenses than to fighting global diseases.
According to the Associated Press, the WHO routinely has spent about $200 million a year on travel expenses—more than what it spends to fight AIDS and hepatitis ($70.5 million), tuberculosis ($59 million), and malaria ($61 million) combined.
At a time when the cash-strapped health agency is pleading for more money to fund its responses to health crises worldwide, it has struggled to get its travel costs under control. Senior officials have complained internally that U.N. staffers break new rules that were introduced to try to curb its expansive travel spending, booking perks like business class airplane tickets and rooms in five-star hotels with few consequences.
“We don’t trust people to do the right thing when it comes to travel,” Nick Jeffreys, WHO’s director of finance, said during a September 2015 in-house seminar on accountability — a video of which was obtained by the AP.
Despite WHO’s numerous travel regulations, Jeffreys said staffers “can sometimes manipulate a little bit their travel.” The agency couldn’t be sure people on its payroll always booked the cheapest fares or that their travel was even warranted, he said.
“People don’t always know what the right thing to do is,” Jeffreys said.
People don’t know what to do? Here’s a hint: If you work for global nonprofit you probably shouldn’t be flying first class or spending $1,008 per night on a hotel suite that has marble bathrooms and a dining room that seats eight. That’s what the AP says Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the WHO, did earlier this month while in Guinea to join the country’s president in celebrating the world’s first Ebola vaccine. Chan alone spent more than $370,000 in travel in 2014—and she wasn’t even the WHO executive with the highest travel expenses for the year.
Could it be that traveling for world health is simply extraordinarily expensive? If so, then why does Doctors Without Borders, which has a staff of about 37,000 aid workers versus WHO’s 7,000 staffers, spend only $43 million on travel a year? (One reason is because Doctor’s Without Borders explicitly forbids their staff from traveling in business class. As the AP notes, even the charity’s president must fly in economy class.)
So why should you care about the WHO’s travel expenses? If for no other reason, because you are paying for their high living lifestyle: WHO’s approximately $2 billion annual budget is drawn from the taxpayer-funded contributions of its 194 member countries and the United States is the largest contributor.