German Chancellor Angela Merkel is one of world leaders who have pledged their country’s support for the World Health Organization. Picture: AP
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is one of world leaders who have pledged their country’s support for the World Health Organization. Picture: AP

Africa in good company in showing support to the WHO

By Shannon Ebrahim Time of article published Jun 19, 2020

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Johannesburg - The Summit on Covid-19 co-hosted this week by the AU and the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation (Focac) ratcheted up solidarity between China and African countries, leaving the US increasingly isolated. 

In a joint statement, African states and China expressed their solid support for the World Health Organization (WHO) to lead the Covid-19 global response and called on other countries to scale up their political and financial support to the body.

This was in sharp contrast to the position of the US, which said recently that it will pull out of the WHO and cut funding to the body given its perceived “deference to China”.

African countries are clearly taking a stand against unilateral moves to undermine multilateral institutions that play a critical role, especially the role of the WHO during the current global public health pandemic.

It is not only African countries that have come out forcefully in support of the WHO.

One day after US President Donald Trump announced he would suspend funding to the WHO, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told G7 leaders that Germany fully supported the WHO. This sentiment was echoed by her G7 counterparts, with Canada, Italy, and France recognising the need for a multilateral response to the pandemic.

The US has by far been the largest funder of the WHO until now, contributing around $400 million (R6.95billion) to its annual budget, while the UK contributes only half that amount, with Germany and Japan contributing even less.

For the two-year period 2018/19, the US gave $893m to the WHO, while China gave $86m in assessed and voluntary contributions. While that is a huge disparity, particularly noteworthy is that while China’s economic and diplomatic influence has been rising, so have its contributions to multilateral bodies.

China’s contribution to the WHO since 2014 has increased by 52%, and now that the US has sought to punish the WHO since the outbreak of the pandemic, China has stepped into the void and pledged $2bn to the Covid-19 response over the next two years.

The entire budget of the WHO for the 2020/21 period is $2.4bn. There is little doubt that China is likely to make up a significant portion of the shortfall in US funding, and in doing so will gain greater influence and credibility on the world stage.

For many years the US’s sway over the WHO has been a point of contention, which has largely been due to its oversized financial contributions.

During the Cold War, the issue of excessive US influence over the WHO was such a sore point that the then USSR and its allies abandoned their membership of the WHO for a number of years.

As the saying goes, “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” Given that dose of realism, if China becomes the major benefactor of the WHO and other multilateral bodies, its influence will also expand exponentially, and the international isolation of the US will become increasingly apparent.

China is already accelerating its co-operation with the WHO along what is known as the Health Silk Road initiative.

In the AU-Focac Solidarity Summit that took place on Wednesday, China also took on a leadership role in assisting African countries with their current debt concerns in the context of Covid-19.

China pledged to earnestly act on the G20 Debt Service Suspension Initiative and will encourage other countries to extend the period of debt suspension for African countries that are struggling to cope.

Added to this were promises by China to construct Africa-China Friendship hospitals, and to expedite construction of the Africa CDC headquarters.

Perhaps most importantly was China’s pledge to ensure that once work on a vaccine is completed, that Africa will be the first to benefit. China has said it will make vaccine development a global public good that is both affordable and accessible.

Africa deserves such reassurance given the public utterances of another world leader who seeks to keep a future vaccine for the benefit of his own citizens.

African countries were further buoyed by the strong commitment that came out of the summit for co-operation on research and development of diagnostics, therapeutics, medicines and vaccines.

If we are to learn the lessons of recent history, if materialism is to work optimally, there should be greater burden-sharing among all developed and even developing countries in the funding of multilateral institutions. That would ensure that no single country or group of countries has disproportionate influence over decision making, and can use institutions to pursue narrow political agendas.

If bodies like the WHO are to work for everyone, and we recognise its critical importance for the future of global health governance, then we need to make it even more efficient and effective and ensure even funding among member states.

* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media group foreign editor.

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