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Will Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation emerge as WHO’s biggest donor after US withdrawal?

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation co-founded by the former Microsoft CEO is set to become the World Health Organization largest donor if the United States fully withdraws its funding from the agency. The suggestion was first made by the Devex media platform, which analysed the list of the organisation’s contributors in 2018-2019, both intergovernmental and private.

In the last two years the Gates foundation provided 12.12% of WHO’s budget, or $530.9 million, becoming the second-largest contributor behind the US, which endowed the agency with $893 million during those years.

“If a private foundation were to become WHO’s highest donor, it would be transformational”, the director of WHO’s Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law, Lawrence Gostin, told Devex in a written statement. “It would enable a single rich philanthropist to set the global health agenda”.

The WHO currently receives funding from its member state organisations and nongovernmental donors. While the states’ funding met through specified quotas is fully flexible and discretionary, any extra money given by governments or private organisations does not need to be flexible, meaning it can be contributed for use in specific areas.

“The other contributions are always designated for a purpose, and obviously that purpose is according to our priorities and needs”, senior external relations officer for philanthropy, corporate, and innovative financing at WHO, Cintia Diaz-Herrera, explained to the outlet.

At the end of May, the organisation announced that it was seeking to create its own foundation to attract more funding from nongovernmental donors in a sustainable and predictable manner. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus noted that the absence of much flexibility in spending constitutes “one of the greatest threats” to the organisation’s success, as “less than 20% of our budget comes in the form of flexible assessed contributions from member states”.

“In effect, that means WHO has little discretion over the way it spends its funds — almost 80% of its funds”, Ghebreyesus added.

Shortly after that announcement, Donald Trump declared that the United States would sever all ties with the WHO, and the country’s contributions to the organisation would all be redirected to “other bodies”.

Bill Gates criticised the president’s move, arguing that no donor organisation was “interested in just replacing funds that have been taken away” and urged the United States to continue supporting the global health agenda set by the body. According to the information available on the WHO website, the largest share of both the US and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s contributions to the WHO is devoted to the eradication of polio.

The philanthropist and his co-founded charity have also been major investors in programmes devoted to the development of vaccines, tests and tracking system in the global fight against the coronavirus pandemic. The Microsoft co-founder even said in May, that he recently warned Donald Trump and other high-ranked world officials about the threat of global infectious diseases.