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U.S. in unique position to force increased accountability at the WHO: FDD

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Craig Singleton, Adjunct Fellow at Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, joins Yahoo Finance’s Anjalee Khemlani and Kristin Myers to discuss reforming the WHO in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Video Transcript

KRISTIN MYERS: But let's turn now to reforming the World Health Organization after many critics say China intentionally ignored global health standards. Our next guest called this diplomatic malpractice and in a memo wrote, quote, "The WHO lacks a compulsory dispute resolution mechanism capable of compelling member state compliance, as exemplified by China's repeated refusal to provide information about outbreaks within its borders." Let's bring in Craig Singleton, Adjunct Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

Craig, we're also here with Yahoo Finance's health reporter Anjalee Khemlani, of course, for this conversation. And Craig, what would a dispute resolution mechanism really look like? Would it include monetary fines? How can the WHO be reformed, essentially, to include that kind of mechanism?

CRAIG SINGLETON: Thanks so much for having me. I think one of the things we have to really recognize is that the road to reform and the road to preventing the next pandemic doesn't actually run through Beijing. It runs through Geneva, where the WHO is headquartered. And no amount of US pressure is going to convince China to suddenly acknowledge its COVID deceptions. But Washington can and should use its financial leverage at the WHO to promote meaningful reform.

And by that, the US is the top funder for the World Health Organization, providing about 20% of its budget. When you combine that with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, you cross 30%. So when we look at the World Health Organization and how it actually operates, we actually have to go back to SARS. And COVID is-- COVID is occurring in the shadows of SARS.

And so back in 2003-2004, the world agreed to something called the International Health Regulations. And that is a document, an international treaty that China is a member of that says that you have to report all public health emergencies in a timely manner. The problem is that neither the World Health Organization nor the United Nations have any legal means to enforce those health regulations, nor can the WHO levy penalties on rogue states that defy WHO investigators, just like Chan has done.

And that's where we really do need a serious discussion. We need to be thinking about maybe first-of-its-kind global health sanctions that either the WHO or the United States could levy during a health crisis to sort of compel compliance and to raise really important awareness about emerging outbreaks.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Well, Craig, let's talk about that. This is largely a philosophical discussion at this point. Looking at the financial power that the US has in the World Health Organization, that didn't seem to really do much. We also saw the Trump administration back out.

And that really led the way for China to actually expand and get a lot of attention for increasing its support. Clearly, it has the capability to. So are we looking at this through the wrong lens? Are we looking at it through maybe the US doesn't have as much weight to throw around as previously thought?

CRAIG SINGLETON: It's a great question. And I think a lot of people in Washington are sort of scratching their head to say, how can we as the United States-- when we donate 20% of the budget for this entity, hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars every single year-- China donates 1.5%, or about $75 to $80 million how. Are we possibly competing at the same level?

Part of that comes down to how Congress doesn't earmark US taxpayer money that's going to the WHO. So the Chinese are really smart and really strategic. They take their small donations and they funnel them into parts of the WHO that are in charge of governance, that are in charge of personnel. They're really driving policy through personnel.

And the United States, on the other hand, sort of takes a more broad approach. We aren't targeting our earmarks in such a way that we can meaningfully change the WHO, whether that has to do with how they respond to a pandemic or a lot of the other major structural issues that have been facing the WHO for decades. To give us some examples, the WHO a few years ago, it was documented in a report, spent more on executive travel for its leaders than it did on AIDS tuberculosis combined in a single year.

And so I think when we start to look at these expenditures and we start to go through them with a fine tooth comb, we say there are opportunities to streamline here. And as the world's top-- the funder number one for the WHO in the world, the United States is uniquely placed to actually sort of take a very targeted approach to remove funding for certain programs, to plus-up ones that we think are really important, like pandemic surveillance, and to really force some increased accountability at the WHO. Absent that, it's really a compelling narrative to see how China has sort of been able to corrupt the organization and sort of use it to propagate its own geopolitical ambitions and to push back against the idea that they could have done a better job handling COVID.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Well, on that note also, the traditional sort of response to, why didn't the World Health Organization do better, is somewhat the same that you see at the United Nations, which is it is largely more of a club, I've started to call it, rather than, say, a governing body, because then you get into conflict with nation sovereignty. So what is a way that can be done without really upsetting that balance?

CRAIG SINGLETON: It's a big question facing the Biden administration. They have gone all-in on multilateralism. And I think one of the criticisms that they're going to face-- and a justified one-- is, how are we not just continuing to give money to these multilateral institutions if they actually aren't advancing American interests?

I think specifically on the COVID issue, there's an opportunity here for the UN to investigate itself. We often talk about how bureaucratic and sort of opaque the United Nations is. But just when there was the Iraq Oil for Food Program over a decade ago, the UN was actually able to investigate fraud throughout its enterprise and throughout member states who were involved in sort of perpetrating those frauds.

The United States hasn't actually called for an independent investigation by, for example, the UN's Office of Internal Oversight Services, to lead that sort of an accountability procedure. We have to sit back, though, and say that checkbook diplomacy, continuing to cut these checks for these organizations, isn't going to work. We have to start to back it up with policy. We have to start to put US candidates or Western candidates forward to lead these organizations to displace candidates from places like China that we know are advancing China's interests not just on global health, but on a range of issues.

And this is really where not just the executive branch, but Congress, really does need to get involved. Remember, they are sitting there and funding all the expenditures that are going to multilateral organizations. When was the last time we really pushed Congress to say, how are you spending taxpayer dollars in a time of what should be fiscal responsibility, and where can we really get a return on investment for US taxpayers?

Those are important conversations to have. We should really be starting this week, because Congress has just kicked off a flurry of legislative activity, all designed to counter China in the competition space, in the tech space, and in the international space. All the stars are aligning, and now the question is, can Congress and can the administration get their act together and sort of drive meaningful reform?

KRISTIN MYERS: All right. Craig Singleton, Adjunct Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Health reporter Anjalee Khemlani. Thank you both for this conversation.