World Health Organization

The World Health Organization (WHO) is a specialized agency of the United Nations responsible for international public health. The WHO Constitution states its main objective as “the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health”. Headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, it has six regional offices and 150 field offices worldwide.

The WHO was established on 7 April 1948.  The first meeting of the World Health Assembly (WHA), the agency’s governing body, took place on 24 July of that year. The WHO incorporated the assets, personnel, and duties of the League of Nations’ Health Organization and the Office International d’Hygiène Publique, including the International Classification of Diseases (ICD). Its work began in earnest in 1951 after a significant infusion of financial and technical resources.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is the UN agency charged with spearheading international public health efforts. Over its nearly seventy-five years, the WHO has logged both successes, such as eradicating smallpox, and perceived failures, such as its delayed response to the Ebola outbreak in 2014.

In response, the WHO has undertaken reforms to improve its ability to fight future epidemics and boost the health of the hundreds of millions of people still living in extreme poverty. However, the WHO is in an uphill battle to loosen its rigid bureaucracy and it faces an increasingly troublesome budget. The COVID-19 pandemic has proved to be another monumental challenge for the health agency, sparking fresh debate over its effectiveness.

The WHO’s accreditation seeks and includes working worldwide to promote healthkeep the world safe, and serve the vulnerable. It advocates that a billion further people should have universal health care contentengagement with the monitoring of public health pitfalls,  coordinating responses to health extremities, and promoting health and well-being.  It provides specialized backing to countriessets transnational health norms, and collects data on global health issues. A publication, the World Health Report, provides assessments of worldwide health motifs. The WHO also serves as a forum for conversations about health issues.

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What does the WHO do?

In its 2019 strategy, the WHO identified three priorities [PDF] for its work over the next five years:

  • providing health coverage to one billion more people;
  • protecting one billion more people from health emergencies such as epidemics; and
  • ensuring another one billion people enjoy better health and well-being, including protection from non-infectious diseases such as cancer.

The WHO’s strategic priorities are rooted in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, a set of seventeen objectives for ending poverty by 2030.

How is the WHO governed?

The WHO is headquartered in Geneva and has six regional and 150 country offices. It is controlled by delegates from its 194 member states, who vote on policy and elect the director general. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, previously Ethiopia’s foreign minister, was elected to a five-year term in 2017 and reelected in 2022. He is the WHO’s first leader from Africa, and his election was the first time all WHO countries had an equal vote.

WHO delegates set the agency’s agenda and approve an aspirational budget each year at the World Health Assembly. The director general is responsible for raising the lion’s share of funds from donors.

What is the WHO’s budget?

The current two-year goal (2022–23) is about $6.1 billion [PDF], with a sharp focus on managing the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Roughly 16 per cent of the budget comes from mandatory dues paid by members; the rest is made up of voluntary donations from governments and private partners. In recent years, the top voluntary contributors have included Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Unlike dues, voluntary contributions are often earmarked for specific initiatives, which can complicate the WHO’s ability to set its own course.

The WHO has become increasingly dependent on voluntary contributions, which puts pressure on the organization to align its goals with those of its donors.

Over the past decade, the WHO has become increasingly dependent on voluntary contributions, which puts pressure on the organization to align its goals with those of its donors. For instance, President Donald Trump reportedly threatened to cut U.S. contributions in 2018 if other member states proceeded with a resolution to encourage breastfeeding. And in 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump announced he would cut all U.S. ties with the WHO, arguing it failed to take steps to reduce China’s influence over the body. Usually the top contributor, the United States fell to the second-largest donor, providing $680 million in 2020–21, or about 12 percent of the WHO’s budget. However, upon taking office in 2021, President Joe Biden issued an executive order to halt the withdrawal and reengage with the agency.

Health policy

WHO addresses government health policy with two aims: firstly, “to address the underlying social and economic determinants of health through policies and programmes that enhance health equity and integrate pro-poor, gender-responsive, and human rights-based approaches” and secondly “to promote a healthier environment, intensify primary prevention and influence public policies in all sectors so as to address the root causes of environmental threats to health”

The organization develops and promotes the use of evidence-based tools, norms and standards to support member states to inform health policy options. It oversees the implementation of the International Health Regulations, and publishes a series of medical classifications; of these, three are over-reaching “reference classifications”: the International Statistical Classification of Diseases (ICD), the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) and the International Classification of Health Interventions (ICHI). Other international policy frameworks produced by WHO include the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes (adopted in 1981), the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (adopted in 2003)  the Global Code of Practice on the International Recruitment of Health Personnel (adopted in 2010) as well as the WHO Model List of Essential Medicines and its pediatric counterpart. An international convention on pandemic prevention and preparedness is being actively considered. 

In terms of health services, WHO looks to improve “governance, financing, staffing and management” and the availability and quality of evidence and research to guide policy. It also strives to “ensure improved access, quality and use of medical products and technologies”  72–83  WHO – working with donor agencies and national governments – can improve their reporting about use of research evidence. 

Digital Health

On Digital Health topics, WHO has existing Inter-Agency collaboration with the International Telecommunication Union (the UN Specialized Agency for ICT), including the Be Health, Be Mobile Initiative and the ITU-WHO Focus Group on Artificial Intelligence for Health.

Governance and support

The remaining two of WHO’s thirteen identified policy areas relate to the role of WHO itself: 84–91 

  • “to provide leadership, strengthen governance and foster partnership and collaboration with countries, the United Nations system, and other stakeholders in order to fulfil the mandate of WHO in advancing the global health agenda”; and
  • “to develop and sustain WHO as a flexible, learning organization, enabling it to carry out its mandate more efficiently and effectively”.


The WHO along with the World Bank constitute the core team responsible for administering the International Health Partnership (IHP+). The IHP+ is a group of partner governments, development agencies, civil society, and others committed to improving the health of citizens in developing countries. Partners work together to put international principles for aid effectiveness and development cooperation into practice in the health sector.

The organization relies on contributions from renowned scientists and professionals to inform its work, such as the WHO Expert Committee on Biological Standardization, the WHO Expert Committee on Leprosy and the WHO Study Group on Interprofessional Education & Collaborative Practice.

WHO runs the Alliance for Health Policy and Systems Research, targeted at improving health policy and systems.

WHO also aims to improve access to health research and literature in developing countries such as through the HINARI network.

WHO collaborates with The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, UNITAID, and the United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief to spearhead and fund the development of HIV programs.

WHO created the Civil Society Reference Group on HIV, which brings together other networks that are involved in policymaking and the dissemination of guidelines.

WHO, a sector of the United Nations, partners with UNAIDS to contribute to the development of HIV responses in different areas of the world.

WHO facilitates technical partnerships through the Technical Advisory Committee on HIV, which they created to develop WHO guidelines and policies.

In 2014, WHO released the Global Atlas of Palliative Care at the End of Life in a joint publication with the Worldwide Hospice Palliative Care Alliance, an affiliated NGO working collaboratively with the WHO to promote palliative care in national and international health policy.

Public health education and action

Each year, the organization marks World Health Day and other observances focusing on a specific health promotion topic. World Health Day falls on 7 April each year, timed to match the anniversary of WHO’s founding. Recent themes have been vector-borne diseases (2014), healthy ageing (2012) and drug resistance (2011).

The other official global public health campaigns marked by WHO are World Tuberculosis Day, World Immunization Week, World Malaria Day, World No Tobacco Day, World Blood Donor Day, World Hepatitis Day, and World AIDS Day.

As part of the United Nations, the World Health Organization supports work towards the Millennium Development Goals. Of the eight Millennium Development Goals, three – reducing child mortality by two-thirds, reducing maternal deaths by three-quarters, and halting and beginning to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS – relate directly to the WHO’s scope; the other five inter-relate and affect the world health.

Data handling and publications

The World Health Organization works to provide the needed health and well-being evidence through a variety of data collection platforms, including the World Health Survey covering almost 400,000 respondents from 70 countries, and the Study on Global Aging and Adult Health (SAGE) covering over 50,000 persons over 50 years old in 23 countries. The Country Health Intelligence Portal (CHIP), has also been developed to provide an access point to information about the health services that are available in different countries. The information gathered in this portal is used by the countries to set priorities for future strategies or plans, and implement, monitor, and evaluate them.

The WHO has published various tools for measuring and monitoring the capacity of national and The Global Health Observatory (GHO) has been the WHO’s main portal which provides access to data and analyses for key health themes by monitoring health situations around the globe.

The WHO Assessment Instrument for Mental Health Systems (WHO-AIMS), the WHO Quality of Life Instrument (WHOQOL), and the Service Availability and Readiness Assessment (SARA) provide guidance for data collection. Collaborative efforts between WHO and other agencies, such as through the Health Metrics Network, also aim to provide sufficient high-quality information to assist governmental decision-making. WHO promotes the development of capacities in member states to use and produce research that addresses their national needs, including through the Evidence-Informed Policy Network (EVIPNet). The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO/AMRO) became the first region to develop and pass a policy on research for health approved in September 2009.

On 10 December 2013, a new WHO database, known as MiNDbank, went online. The database was launched on Human Rights Day and is part of WHO’s QualityRights initiative, which aims to end human rights violations against people with mental health conditions. The new database presents a great deal of information about mental health, substance abuse, disability, human rights, and the different policies, strategies, laws, and service standards being implemented in different countries. It also contains important international documents and information. The database allows visitors to access the health information of WHO member states and other partners. Users can review policies, laws, and strategies and search for the best practices and success stories in the field of mental health.

The WHO regularly publishes a World Health Report, its leading publication, including an expert assessment of a specific global health topic.Other publications of WHO include the Bulletin of the World Health Organization, the Eastern Mediterranean Health Journal (overseen by EMRO), the Human Resources for Health (published in collaboration with BioMed Central), and the Pan American Journal of Public Health (overseen by PAHO/AMRO).

In 2016, the World Health Organization drafted a global health sector strategy on HIV. In the draft, the World Health Organization outlines its commitment to ending the AIDS epidemic by 2030 with interim targets for the year 2020. To make achievements towards these targets, the draft lists actions that countries and the WHO can take, such as a commitment to universal health coverage, medical accessibility, prevention and eradication of disease, and efforts to educate the public. Some notable points made in the draft include addressing gender inequity where females are nearly twice as likely as men to get infected with HIV and tailoring resources to mobilized regions where the health system may be compromised due to natural disasters, etc. Among the points made, it seems clear that although the prevalence of HIV transmission is declining, there is still a need for resources, health education, and global efforts to end this epidemic.

The WHO has a Framework Convention on Tobacco implementation database which is one of the few mechanisms to help enforce compliance with the FCTC. However, there have been reports of numerous discrepancies between it and national implementation reports on which it was built. As researchers Hoffman and Rizvi report “As of July 4, 2012, 361 (32·7%) of 1104 countries’ responses were misreported: 33 (3·0%) were clear errors (e.g., database indicated ‘yes’ when a report indicated ‘no’), 270 (24·5%) were missing despite countries having submitted responses, and 58 (5·3%) were, in our opinion, misinterpreted by WHO staff”.

WHO has been moving toward acceptance and integration of traditional medicine and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). In 2022, the new International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, ICD-11, will attempt to enable classifications from traditional medicine to be integrated with classifications from evidence-based medicine. Though Chinese authorities have pushed for the change, this and other support of the WHO for traditional medicine has been criticized by the medical and scientific community, due to lack of evidence and the risk of endangering wildlife hunted for traditional remedies. A WHO spokesman said that the inclusion was “not an endorsement of the scientific validity of any Traditional Medicine practice or the efficacy of any Traditional Medicine intervention.”

International Agency for Research on Cancer

The WHO sub-department, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), conducts and coordinates research into the causes of cancer. It also collects and publishes surveillance data regarding the occurrence of cancer worldwide.

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