LONDON – The World Health Organization regularly spends around $ 200 million a year on travel – far more than it distributes to tackle some of the biggest public health problems, including AIDS, tuberculosis or malaria, according to internal documents obtained by the Associated Press.
As the cash-strapped United Nations health agency demands more money to fund its responses to global health crises, it is also struggling to control its own travel costs. Despite the introduction of new rules in an attempt to cut its expensive travel budget, senior officials have complained internally that UN staff are breaking the rules by booking perks such as in-class airline tickets business and rooms in five star hotels.
Last year, the WHO spent around $ 71 million on AIDS and hepatitis. For malaria, he spent $ 61 million. And to slow tuberculosis, the WHO has invested $ 59 million. Yet some health programs are exceptionally funded – the agency spends around $ 450 million trying to eliminate polio each year.
On a recent trip to Guinea, where WHO Director-General Margaret Chan praised West African health workers for triumphing over Ebola, Chan stayed in the largest presidential suite of the Palm Camayenne hotel in Conakry. The suite has an advertised price of 900 euros ($ 1,008) per night. The agency declined to say who footed the bill, noting only that its hotels are sometimes paid for by the host country.
But some say it sends the wrong message to the rest of the agency’s 7,000 staff.
“We don’t trust people to do the right thing when it comes to travel,” Nick Jeffreys, WHO director of finance, said at an internal accountability seminar in September 2015 – of which a video was obtained by the AP.
Despite the many WHO travel regulations, Jeffreys said staff members “can sometimes manipulate their travel a bit.” He said the agency couldn’t be sure they always booked the cheapest ticket or that the trip was even justified.
Ian Smith, executive director of Chan’s office, said the chairman of the WHO audit committee said the agency often does little to stop bad behavior.
“We as an organization sometimes operate as if the rules are there to be broken and exceptions are the rule rather than the norm,” Smith said.
Earlier that year, a memorandum was sent to Chan and other senior leaders with the subject line “ACTIONS TO CONTAIN TRAVEL EXPENSES” in capital letters. The note said compliance with the rules that travel must be booked in advance was “very low” and also pointed out that WHO was under pressure from its member countries to save money.
In a statement to the AP, the UN health agency said “the nature of WHO’s work often requires WHO staff to travel” and that these costs have been reduced by 14% last year compared to the previous year – although this year’s total was unusually high due to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa.