Why Trump is cutting WHO funding during a pandemic

Yes it might have been coming, but for President Trump to suspend contributions slap bang in the middle of a global pandemic is something else.

There are questions that the World Health Organisation (WHO) needs to answer about its handling of this crisis, but now is surely not the moment.

Having laid the ground for the decision a week ago, tweeting that “the WHO really blew it”, last night on the White House lawn Trump made good on his threat: “I’m instructing my administration to halt funding of the World Health Organisation whilst a review is conducted to assess the WHO’s role in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus. Everybody knows what’s going on there…”

Coronavirus: Infection numbers in real time

Coronavirus: Infection numbers in real time

In 2019 the total WHO annual budget was around $6bn (£4.75bn), of which the US contributed nearly $400m (£317m).

That makes the US by far the largest donor to the organisation, “ten times that of China,” according to Secretary of State Pompeo last month.

And that will have played into Trump’s decision. He will be infuriated that the US contributes more than the country he sees as both America’s greatest economic rival and the country he has consistently blamed for the spread of the virus.

What happens next isn’t clear and won’t be straightforward.

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I understand the White House Office of Management and Budget is still drafting proposals for the president and could recommend a number of different options.

The most likely course of action, I’m told, is that the money allocated to the WHO will be re-distributed to other multi-national organisations and maybe even used for similar health programmes.

The more dramatic approach would be to send a bill to Congress asking them to approve a rescinding of funds – a similar approach was taken in 2017 when Trump cut some funding to the United Nations.

However because of social-distancing measures, Congress cannot gather to vote, making this course less likely – it would not allow for the quick-fix the White House wants.

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This move is the latest in a pattern of battles with world organisations that Donald Trump has sought during his Presidency – the UN, NATO, the World Bank, the Paris Climate Accord and now the WHO.

His reasons are often either personal or financial. This time it’s the former. Trump is coming under increasing scrutiny over his early handling of the crisis and at a time when the US economy is in a seriously bad way.

Directing attention and blame to a international body helps shift attention away from his own faults. It’s election year, don’t forget.

 WHO Chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the crisis should not be 'politicised'
Image: WHO Chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the crisis should not be ‘politicised’

The WHO has stayed quiet, except for a passing comment from its head urging countries not to “politicise” the crisis.

The UN Secretary General was desperate not to be dragged into a tit-for-tat – an interview we were expecting to conduct with him hasn’t happened as a result – but Antonio Guterres was finally forced to address the US president head on.

“The lessons learned will be essential to effectively address similar challenges, as they may arise in the future. But now is not that time,” he said in a written statement.

“As it is not that time, it also not the time to reduce the resources for the operations of the World Health Organisation or any other humanitarian organisation in the fight against the virus.”

Will Donald Trump receive international support for this move? No.

Only a few days ago the UK, America’s close ally, announced it would increase its funding to the WHO by £65m. Trump is again acting alone.

Mark Gibson

Graduates in Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois 1990. Move to Los Angeles California in 2004. Specialized in Internet journalism.

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