The Price For Private Funding Of The World Health Organization

A shrinking budget, and ever increasing influence of private actors could spell the end of the UN agency as we know it.

WHO Director General Margaret Chan and Bill Gates at the recent World Health Assembly
WHO Director General Margaret Chan and Bill Gates at the recent World Health Assembly
Stéphane Bussard

In Bill Gates' speech this past week in front of nearly 60 government ministers and 1,800 delegates at the 64th Assembly of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, the Microsoft cofounder urged countries to invest in vaccines and "save ten million lives' by 2020. The timing of the billionaire's appearance was highly symbolic, as the United Nations agency is about to "embark on the most extensive financial accountability reforms in its 63-year history", according to WHO director-general Margaret Chan.

Dr Chan's assessment is dire. She says that, having fought on too many fronts and taken on too many commitments over the last decade, the WHO now finds itself in need of reform. It needs to be more selective and strategic in setting priorities. Chan says that even if the institution has already been living on an austerity budget, it will have to go through deeper structural reform if it is to cope with the health challenges of the 21st century, such as the rise of chronic, non-communicable diseases. She said the recent financial crisis had opened a "new and enduring era of economic austerity."

The WHO's total budget for 2010-2011 is $4.5 billion. Of this, $1.56 billion come from voluntary donations (53% from member states, 21% from the UN and other international institutions, 18% from foundations, 7% from NGOs, and 1% from the private sector). A 10 to 15% drop in these contributions has left the WHO with an estimated 300 million dollar deficit for 2011, which it pledges to reabsorb over the next three years. These financial difficulties will lead to job cuts (the WHO headquarters in Geneva is expected to shed 300 jobs from a total of 2,400), less travelling, fewer publications and new recruits, and the merger of certain services.

It is no wonder then that private-public partnerships are becoming ever more appealing to the WHO. Gates, whose contributions represent almost 10% of the organization's entire budget, is the best example. The American philanthropist was the WHO's second biggest contributor after the US in 2008, when he donated $338.8 million. For the 2010-2011 period, his contributions total $220 million.

The great difficulty facing the cash-strapped institution, of course, is how to make sure that private actors such as Bill Gates do not interfere too much with its health policies. Two years ago, the WHO found itself confronted with a scandal concerning the swine flu epidemic, as it emerged that a certain number of its advisers had close ties with the pharmaceutical industry. Even if the UN agency has tried to protect itself against this kind of conflict of interest, its decision to disclose the names of its so-called flu specialists only after the end of the epidemic caused much criticism.

Another famous example is Paul Herrling, member of a WHO working group for R&D financing. Proposed by Switzerland and appointed by the organization's Executive Council last January, this Novartis research executive will evaluate a 10 billion dollar proposal – of which he is the author.

NGOs have been quick to show their concern about the planned changes, even if they are not opposed to private-public partnerships. One of the projects that attracted most attention is Margaret Chan's desire to establish a Global Health Forum that would include both private and public health actors. "By creating this Forum, the private sector would suddenly be given the same importance as public actors and NGOs. This could potentially lead to a significant increase in the drug industry's influence on the WHO's sanitary policies," says Tido Von Schoen-Angerer, head of the Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines of Doctors without Borders.

He agrees that companies, especially in the pharmaceutical sector, must be among the WHO's discussion partners, but he fears that the proposed Forum could chip away at the World Health Assembly's powers. "Rather than allowing all kinds of private actors to be part of the organization's governing process, it would be better to emphasize the WHO's leadership and improve the private sector's participation in the already existing frame."

Rohit Malpani, political councillor for the NGO Oxfam, thinks the private sector – Bill Gates in particular – already yields a certain amount of influence on the WHO. The negotiations have only just begun, but a pressing question has already started to emerge: will the WHO continue to be in charge of the world's health policy, or will its role be reduced to that of a mere coordinator?

Read the original article in French.

Photo -US Mission Geneva

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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