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9 June 2017

World Health Organisation Spends More on Travel Than on Efforts to Combat Diseases

by Tamara Dumas

The World Health Organization spends about $200 million a year on travel expenses — which is more than it spends on fighting AIDS, mental health issues, tuberculosis, and malaria combined, AP revealed recently.

The documents obtained by AP reveal that last year, WHO spent about $71 million on AIDS and hepatitis. It devoted $61 million to malaria. To slow the spread of tuberculosis, WHO invested $59 million. At the same time, it has spent about $200 million on travel expenses. It was also reported that the agency spends about $450 million trying to wipe out polio every year.

Among these ‘necessary’ travel expenses, could potentially be the luxury travel expenses of  Dr. Margaret Chan, the director-general of the World Health Organisation. The high-ranked official traveled to Guinea earlier this year to join the country’s president in celebrating the world’s first Ebola vaccine where she spent her time in luxury. The night in her top-tier presidential suite at the beach-side Palm Camayenne hotel costs 900€ ($1,008) per night and is equipped with marble bathrooms and a dining room that seats eight. A rock star lifestyle? No, just a ‘humble’ official of the WHO.

The WHO declined to say if it paid for Chan’s stay at the Palm Camayenne in Conakry, but noted that host countries sometimes pick up the tab for her hotels. Good motivation to grow through the ranks! In total, Dr. Chan spent more than $370,000 in travel that year, as documented in a confidential 25-page analysis of WHO expenses that identified the agency’s top 50 spenders. Dr. Chan came in second.

The first name on the big spenders’ list is of the Dr. Bruce Aylward. The WHO official - who directed WHO’s outbreak response - racked up nearly $400,000 in travel expenses during the Ebola crisis, sometimes flying by helicopter to visit clinics instead of traveling by jeep over muddy roads, according to internal trip reports he filed.

It seems like not much has changed since September 2015, when Nick Jeffreys, WHO’s director of finance was heard saying in a video obtained by AP: “We don’t trust people to do the right thing when it comes to travel”.

Not surprising then that the WHO is struggling to get its travel costs under control. Senior officials have complained internally that U.N. staffers break new rules that were introduced to try to curb its expansive travel spending, booking perks like business class airplane tickets and rooms in five-star hotels with few consequences.

Despite WHO’s numerous travel regulations, Jeffreys said staffers “can sometimes manipulate a little bit their travel.” The agency couldn’t be sure people on its payroll always booked the cheapest fares or that their travel was even warranted, he said.

Ian Smith, executive director of Chan’s office, is also in agreement. According to him, the chair of WHO’s audit committee said the agency often did little to stop misbehaviour. “We, as an organization, sometimes function as if rules are there to be broken and that exceptions are the rule rather than the norm,” Smith said.

The ‘large portion’ of expenses was attributed to tackling the Ebola outbreak, that is – one might assume looking at the travel expenses of Dr. Bruce Aylward - for traveling to and from. During the Ebola disaster in West Africa, WHO’s travel costs spiked to $234 million. Although experts say on-the-ground help was critical, some question whether the agency couldn’t have shaved its costs so more funds went to West Africa . The three countries that bore the brunt of the outbreak couldn’t even afford basics such as protective boots, gloves and soap for endangered medical workers or body bags for the thousands who died!

With 7,000 staffers who are used to spend company’s money, one might imagine it is almost impossible to track each and every booking. The WHO travel expenses are however, truly phenomenal.

Still, put in perspective, the WHO has managed to reduce its travel spending by 14% (!) compared to last year, according to their correspondence to AP. But there will be no popping of champagne at WHO, at least not at the internal meetings.

Since 2013, WHO has paid out $803 million for travel and  approximately $2 billion annual budget is drawn from the taxpayer-funded contributions of its 194 member countries; the United States is the largest contributor.

In comparison, Doctors Without Borders – who count about 37,000 staff of aid workers versus WHO’s 7,000 staffers – manage to keep their travel expenses in around $43 million a year. Go Figure. 

Dr. Margaret Chan. Photo credit: WHO

Palm Camayenne Presidential Suite

Dr. Bruce Aylward