148th Session of the WHO Executive Board: Another waste of time – or time to restore WHO as directing global health authority?

Series of public briefings and debates
hosted by G2H2, 11-15 January 2021

In the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, we witness a crisis of the WHO governing bodies, and in particular the Executive Board. This crisis contributes to further weakening the role of the World Health Organization as global health authority. In the words of two EB members: 

“Is the Executive Board of the World Health Organization an active governing body, or is it just a ceremonial one that only expresses gratitude towards the work we are doing? I personally want to see us here as an active executive board, one which is guiding us through the pandemic crises, through finding solutions and strategies in this most challenging public health crisis in terms of socioeconomic effects.”  (Clemens Auer, Austria, WHO EB member – see here at at 25.30 Min)

“When I follow the EB, I hear a lot of speeches prepared from their capitals, a lot of time wasted, one day and a half maybe, hearing ourselves, and there is not much interaction really pointing out the topics that we should be discussing. When we got into the Covid pandemic, there was a lot of questioning about how multilateral institutions were working, solving the problems and the needs of the citizens. We need to get these institutions closer to the people. We need to explain the things we do to society.”  (Frank Tressler Zamorano, Chile, WHO EB member – see here)

A series of public briefings and debates

In this series of public briefings and debates hosted by the Geneva Global Health Hub (G2H2), civil society organizations asked how the World Health Organization can live up to its constitutional mandate of being the directing and coordinating authority on international health work. Both in the current Covid19 pandemic and beyond,  what will be needed to reaffirm this particular position of the WHO? 

The content of the briefings and debates was shaped through the feedback received from G2H2 members, based on their scrutiny of the topics to be taken up by the WHO Executive Board. In the tradition of G2H2 briefings ahead of WHO governing body meetings, all sessions started with analysis and proposals provided by civil society organizations.


Send us additional resources and references to be added!

Monday, 11 January 2021, 12.30-14.00 CET

Human rights and the Covid-19 response: lessons for the future, action for now

The issue of human rights has arisen in the response to the Covid-19 pandemic in a variety of areas. The often heavy-handed response of states in the initial response was highlighted early on by civil society as well as the WHO Director-General, particularly in a civil society discussion on 26 May 2020. This focus on police rather than public health, resulting in state violence against citizens instead of an inclusive rights-based response, has undermined trust in government as well as public health measures to contain the pandemic. With the review of the International Health Regulations (IHR) in the context of Covid-19, WHO has the opportunity to strengthen human rights considerations in pandemic preparedness and response, but we have not seen this matter addressed so far in the IHR Review Committee and its reports. Additionally, the IHR review will be a time-consuming process, while the Covid-19 response requires a more immediate action from WHO. The precedent of ignoring human rights abuses in the name of public health is a dangerous one, not to be allowed to go unchallenged.

Session organizer: People’s Health Movement
Session contacts: Ana Vračar (ana@phmovement.org) and Ravi Ram (ravimram@gmail.com)


Further references proposed by session participants

Tuesday, 12 January 2021, 16.30-18.00 CET

What can WHO contribute to making COVID-19 vaccines, treatments and technologies global public goods?

In the debate on access to Covid-19 vaccines, treatments and technologies, WHO has so far failed to provide guidance and leadership on dealing with them as  global public goods – despite strong internal expertise on the issue. As a consequence, the World Trade Organization has once more become a more relevant arena for political proposals and debates on global health than the World Health Organization and its governing bodies. (How) can this be changed? What is the state of play regarding proposals for making vaccines, treatments and technologies global public goods? How can WHO live up to its constitutional role of providing binding conventions or agreements in key fields of public health (Art. 19 of the WHO Constitution)? 

Session organizer: Viva Salud
Session contact: Jasper Thys (jasper.thys@vivasalud.be)
Concept note of this session: Session VivaSalud


Wednesday, 13 January 2021, 16.30-18.00 CET

Private sector engagement for strong health systems?

Private sector engagement and investment in the health sector mainly takes place through private financing and provision of health services, public procurement and concessional public private partnerships (PPPs). In times of economic globalization, the rules of (private sector) cross-border investment in the health sector are based on WTO/GATS modalities difficult to control by any government. The Covid-19 pandemic has once more shown the public health risks of privatized and under-regulated health care provision. Nevertheless, the World Health Organization still promotes “private sector engagement for strong health systems and better health” and lets things slide. Or not? 

Session organizers: WSFHSS and CSEND
Session contacts: Armando de Negri (armandodenegri@yahoo.com) and Raymond Saner (saner@csend.org)


Further references proposed by session participants (selection)

Thursday 14 January 2021, 16.30-18.00 CET

Rescuing the World Health Organization from itself?

The strange case of the WHO/EURO report “An unprecedented challenge – Italy’s first response to COVID-19”,  which was published on 13th May and mysteriously pulled over from the WHO website 24 hours later never to be uploaded again, shreds new lights into  a stratification of institutional frailties and inefficiencies at the WHO (see here).  As the case is unfolding, nationally and internationally, the risk exists that the COVID19 emergency  may increasingly expose the WHO to instances of conflict of interest both from powerful actors – be it Member States or entities form the private sector  – and from individual agendas within the house. As we know, the institutional weakness of the WHO is a responsibility mainly to be attributed to its Member States, not always WHO’s best friends. WHO’s porosity at pandemic times adds new layers of concerns for the potential damage to the agency’s legitimacy and reputation. To do so, the WHO governing bodies need to have a closer look at the WHO Constitution and reactivate some of its key provisions and internal tools aimed at preserving the independence of WHO’s technical work.

Session organizer: Society for International Development SID
Session contact: Nicoletta Dentico (ndentico@sidint.org)


Some references

Friday, 15 January 2021, 16.30-18.00 CET

What reform agenda for the WHO Executive Board?

The WHO Executive Board needs to reclaim its executive role in WHO governance and take the lead in the process of a thorough reform of WHO governing bodies beyond some procedural aspects that will be discussed once more at EB148. We do not want to see the governing bodies of the WHO just being a waste of time, but a place where transformation is initiated and shaped, and where global health leadership takes place. Wrapping up a series of civil society briefings and debates ahead of EB148, we ask what should be on the agenda of an EB retreat (members only) announced for 2021.

Session organizer: Medicus Mundi International Network
Session contact: Thomas Schwarz (schwarz@medicusmundi.org)
Outline of this session: Session MMI – EB governance


Further references proposed by session participants

G2H2 references: Civil society input in field of WHO Governance (selection)

  • Social participation and accountability within and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. Civil society meeting with WHO DG Dr Tedros, 13 October 2020, and follow-up meeting on 27 October 2020
  • A World Health Assembly in times of a dual crisis: Covid-19 and the collapse of multilateralism as we have known it. Civil society meeting ahead of WHA73
    Friday, 15 May 2020
  • Towards a more meaningful engagement of WHO with civil society. An initial assessment of the report of the WHO secretariat to the 145th Session of the WHO Executive Board, 29-30 May 2019,
  • WHO, civil society and “non-State actors”: How to deal with a difficult relationship. Civil society meeting ahead of the 72nd World Health Assembly, 17-18 May 2019:
  • The WHO we want and the leadership WHO needs. A message from civil society (March 2017)

This series of online briefings and debate took place on 11-15 January 2021, in the week before the 148th Session of the WHO Executive Board, and was set up as public Zoom webinars. All sessions could be attended independently. For general enquiries, please get in touch with the G2H2 secretariat. Thank you!

Photo: WHO / D Meissner