LONDON — The new head of the World Health Organization said he is reviewing the agency’s travel expenses, after an Associated Press story revealed the U.N. agency spends more on travel than on fighting AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.
Ethiopia’s former health minister, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, took office earlier this week, replacing China’s Dr. Margaret Chan. In a “Town Hall” speech given to staffers in Geneva and in regional and country offices, Tedros said he would be examining “the recent uproar over travel costs.”
In a story published in May, the AP found that the cash-strapped agency routinely spends about $200 million on travel every year and that Chan regularly flew first class.
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.
According to internal documents obtained by AP, senior officials at the U.N. health agency have been struggling for years to trim travel costs and have complained that staffers routinely break rules by booking perks like business-class airplane tickets and rooms in five-star hotels.
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 afford basics such as protective boots, gloves and soap for endangered medical workers.
When Chan traveled to Guinea in May to join the country’s president in celebrating the world’s first Ebola vaccine, she spent the night in the presidential suite at the beach-side Palm Camayenne hotel. The suite, equipped with marble bathrooms and a dining room for eight, has an advertised price of 900 euros ($1,008) per night. WHO declined to say if it paid for Chan’s stay at the hotel, but said host countries sometimes pick up her tab.
“WHO must deliver value for money,” Tedros said upon taking office this week. “I am reviewing the situation thoroughly and will ensure that our resources are used efficiently.” After he was elected in May, Tedros said that if WHO’s travel costs were not justifiable, they would have to be addressed.
Since 2013, WHO has paid $803 million for travel. WHO’s approximately $2 billion annual budget is drawn from the taxpayer-funded contributions of its 194 member countries; the United States is the largest contributor.
According to the budget proposed by the Trump administration for the U.S. fiscal year starting Oct. 1, contributions to the U.N. would drop by about 31 percent.