World Health Organization

Established in 1948, the World Health Organization (WHO) is the specialized UN agency responsible for providing leadership on global health matters, shaping the health research agenda, setting norms and standards, articulating evidence-based policy options, providing technical support to countries and monitoring and assessing health trends. Its stated objective is “the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health”, with health being defined as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.

Areas of interest

  • health systems and services
  • infectious diseases (prevention, treatment, monitoring of outbreaks)
  • non-communicable diseases and mental health
  • vaccines, pharmaceutical diagnostics, drugs
  • family and community health
  • health security and environment
  • information, evidence and research

WHO has a very large number of programmes and projects covering all the above areas and may work in partnership with other UN agencies, member governments, non-governmental organizations and global public-private partnerships. It works to eradicate disease by sponsoring programmes aimed at treatment and prevention, by coordinating international efforts to increase preparedness for and monitor infectious disease outbreaks, and by supporting the development of vaccines, drugs and diagnostic tools. WHO works with member states to improve their treatment, care and prevention services and runs health-related campaigns, for example, to discourage tobacco use or to promote physical activity and a healthy diet. WHO also has powers to instigate international law, as in the case of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, and regulations, such as the International Health Regulations.

The current director-general is Dr Margaret Chan. WHO employs over 8,000 people based in over 147 country offices, 6 regional offices, and WHO headquarters in Geneva. In addition, WHO maintains a number of offices whose purpose is to promote and support strategic partnerships. One such office is located in Brussels, where the WHO regional office for Europe (based in Copenhagen) and headquarters maintain permanent representatives at the European Union. WHO’s 2008-2009 programme budget was US$ 4.23 billion, the vast majority of which was made up of voluntary contributions from member states. (In 2006-2007, the regular budget was US$ 915 million.)

By virtue of its commitments to development, to multilateralism and to the UN, and due to its values of universality, quality, equity and solidarity, the European Union is a key WHO partner in the shaping of the global health architecture. According to its constitution, WHO is the “directing and co-ordinating authority on international health work”. Member governments govern WHO through the World Health Assembly (WHA, which includes all member states) and the Executive Board (made up of 32 member states). Officially, each country has the same level of influence on WHO’s strategies and policies. However, as two-thirds of its total financial resources are extra budgetary and depend on donor countries, the real power relations differ from this ideal. Interaction between the governments of member states inside WHO is very important and, in spite of the multiplication of important actors in global health, WHO continues to be the central forum of global health. As a governmental organization, it also plays an important role in initiating the development of international law in health. Although being accountable to the WHA and the ‘servant’ of the member states, the secretariat has a certain autonomy as well as an impact on WHO’s strategy and policies. Compared with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) or the UNDP, WHO does not have a strong programme-implementation function.