In Focus: Global Health and Multilateral Diplomacy

June 28, 2021

By Mike Beard and Philip Kenol, co-chairs of Global Health Council’s Multilateral Roundtable 

Coming out of a very busy World Health Assembly (WHA), which closed with fewer bold and concrete actions than observers had hoped for, many looked to the G7 and G20 as fora for further opportunities to begin delivering on the specific commitments and reforms necessary to combat the pandemic and strengthen the World Health Organization and the global health ecosystem. 

The G7 meeting in Cornwall, United Kingdom, on June 11 was the first opportunity after WHA for leaders to pick up the baton to align on global COVID-19 response and articulate the kind of game-changing reforms needed for greater health preparedness coordination as well as more equitable and comprehensive response mechanisms to tackle health threats. The summit was seen as a major test for G7 leaders, especially for the United Kingdom as host, which has come under fire given its recent slashing of global health budgets.

The outcomes of the G7 leaders’ summit were underwhelming given the enormity of present global needs:

  • Member countries committed to sharing at least 870 million COVID-19 vaccine doses over the next year. While this pledge was important, it falls short of the 1 billion target that was touted in the lead-up to the summit, and remains a small fraction of the 11 billion doses still needed to vaccinate 70 percent of the global population.
  • The United States did make a major contribution and was the only nation at the summit that stepped up the ambition of its pledge with its announcement of purchasing 500 million Pfizer vaccine doses for the COVAX facility. Overall, there is also glaring uncertainty around the allocations and timing amidst an ongoing and urgent need for vaccines and other COVID-19 countermeasures in lower- and middle-income countries over the next few months.
  • Additionally, no new financial commitments were made to the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A), which is facing an US$18.1 billion funding gap. Given the continued need for greater global access to COVID-19 tools, including diagnostic tests, therapeutics, oxygen therapies, and other health technologies, this was unfathomable.
  • G7 leaders did outline their commitment to “explore options for building consensus this year, around sustainable global health and health security financing,” and affirmed that they “support efforts to accelerate manufacturing capacities of COVID-19 tools on all continents…and in particular will strive to support African efforts to establish regional manufacturing hubs.” 

Many advocates have turned their attention to upcoming G20 deliberations and hope that leaders engaged in that forum can deliver for the global health community. That said, some civil society organizations such as the C20 have expressed concern in the lead up to the latest G20 Health Working Group meeting over the lack of accelerated and coordinated action by the G20 leadership to advance agreed-upon principles set out in the Rome Declaration and adopted at the Global Health Summit in May.  They also urged G20 leaders to fully fund ACT-A and to take a human rights-based, people-centered, equity-focused, and gender-transformative approach to the pandemic, stressing that “transparent, accountable, safe, meaningful and inclusive mechanisms and processes must be institutionalized for the participation of women and girls, communities and civil society at all levels of decision-making, implementation, and monitoring, to ensure that policies and actions needed to strengthen health and social systems are collectively owned and monitored by governments and citizens.” Given that the G7 was an underleveraged opportunity, it will be critical for the G20 to find ways to deliver and transform high-level pledges into concrete action in the coming months. 

Lastly the Executive Board

Immediately following the World Health Assembly in May, the WHO Executive Board (EB) reflected on the outcomes of the assembly and took a deeper dive into the governance and administrative matters of the organization. At the outset, the Board welcomed the Minister of Health of Kenya as the new Board Chair, and elected new members including Afghanistan, Belarus, Denmark, France, Japan, Malaysia, Paraguay, Peru, Rwanda, Slovenia, Syrian Arab Republic, and Timor-Leste. Given the allegations of human rights abuses, the election of Belarus and Syrian Arab Republic generated heated debate among Member States and garnered considerable media attention in the days that followed. 

During the meeting, Board Members debated the modalities for engagement with non-state actors, both in the context of the assembly and in WHO’s operations more generally. Some Member States emphasized the importance of partnerships on issues like technology and digital solutions, while others expressed the need to proceed cautiously in pursuing new partnerships and at all times prioritize the primacy of Member States.

On the administrative side, the EB appreciated WHO’s recent use of results-based reporting and new efforts to demonstrate its impact to stakeholders. There was also wide recognition of the extreme challenges faced by WHO staff in 2020, and EB members commended staff at global, regional, and country levels for their tireless commitment to the organization and its work.

Finally, the dates of future Governing Bodies meeting were announced: 

  • WHA Special Session: 29 November 2021 to 1 December 2021
  • 150th Executive Board: 24 January 2022 to 29 January 2022  
  • 75th WHA:  22 May 2022 to 28 May 2022