U.S. Was Behind On Payments To WHO Before Trump's Cutoff

May 7, 2020
Originally published on May 7, 2020 6:13 am

In mid-April, when President Trump declared, "Today I'm instructing my administration to halt funding of the World Health Organization," Jimmy Kolker did a double take.

"We were already in arrears before he said anything," says Kolker, who was an assistant secretary for global health affairs during the Obama administration.

Kolker has seen the U.S. get behind before on its payments to the WHO, though never to the degree that it has during the Trump administration. Amid the worst global health disaster of the past century, he notes that close to $200 million was already past due the WHO.

No country owes the World Health Organization more in annual dues than the United States. The $118 million that Washington is supposed to pay the group this year amounts to nearly a quarter of the annual fees the WHO assesses to all 194 of its member states.

On top of this year's overdue payment, according to the WHO, the U.S. also still owes $81 million from last year.

"It's certainly irresponsible and reneging on a commitment that's very clear that we made," says Kolker of the delinquent U.S. payments, "and that we want to uphold and want other countries to uphold."

The money for the WHO was actually approved by Congress last year in its annual appropriation for the United Nations. Democrats in Congress don't think the president can simply decide to withhold the money.

"He can do it temporarily, but he can't do it as a policy," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said of Trump's declared intention to cut WHO funding, in an interview on All Things Considered. "If he wants to hold up some money, that is questionable in terms of its legality. But he cannot stop the money ever from going."

There are actually two pots of money at stake. The first is the funding already approved by Congress, whose payment the U.S. has fallen behind on.

The U.S., according to the World Health Organization, has paid none of this year's assessed fees and still owes $81 million from last year.
Denis Balibouse / Reuters

The second pot of money is future spending to support the WHO.

Those yet-to-be-appropriated funds are what appear to be in peril. According to a State Department spokesperson who requested anonymity, the 60- to 90-day funding halt that Trump ordered affects only that new money for the WHO — not the funds Congress has already approved.

Trump says a review is needed to investigate what he calls the WHO's failure to challenge official Chinese government accounts with "credible reports from sources in Wuhan" about human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus in December.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned last month on Fox News that there might be no more money coming from the U.S. for the WHO.

"It may be the case that the United States can never return to underwriting, having U.S. taxpayer dollars go to, the WHO," Pompeo told Fox host Laura Ingraham. "We may need to be, have even bolder change than that."

According to Pompeo's director of foreign assistance, James Richardson, the secretary of state and former CIA director wants to redirect global health funding to groups other than the WHO.

"There are plenty of amazing and highly qualified organizations implementing these programs around the world," Richardson told reporters late last month at a State Department briefing, "and to be honest, no organization — or country, for that matter — is owed a single nickel from the American people."

But with its hefty backlog of unpaid dues, what the U.S. actually owes the WHO is well more than a nickel. As the nation responsible for 15% of the WHO's overall budget, the U.S. now stands alone among the world's wealthy nations in not paying off not only this year's annual assessment, but last year's as well.

Yet at the same time that the U.S. hasn't paid back dues, it has made other payments. The WHO did receive about $57 million in payments from the U.S. in early January, hours after the organization put out a public statement about a new outbreak of pneumonia in Wuhan, China, of "unknown cause." But those funds were to settle only the balance of what had been owed for 2018 and a part of membership dues for 2019.

And it did send $30 million to the WHO for its COVID-19 response fund.

Those mixed signals on payments are why Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, says Trump is simply seeking to make the WHO a scapegoat.

"I don't think that there is any real appetite in the U.S. government to walk away from WHO for the long run," Jha noted in a webinar organized this month by the Council on Foreign Relations. "This is much more political posturing, so part of me just sort of says we should take the president and his bluster a little less seriously."

Especially when that president says he's cutting off funding to the WHO and, it turns out, money for the organization was already being held up.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

Can you cut off money that's already been cut off? It sounds like a riddle. It's not. It's a question people have been asking since President Trump announced he would stop funding for the World Health Organization. Here's NPR's David Welna to explain what's going on.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: The U.S. was supposed to pay the WHO $118 million in membership dues the first day of this year. But none of that money has been paid, neither was a lot of what was owed for last year. So in mid-April, when President Trump said this...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Today I'm instructing my administration to halt funding of the World Health Organization.

WELNA: ...Jimmy Kolker did a double take.

JIMMY KOLKER: We were already in arrears before he said anything. And we certainly had not paid anything from the current appropriation.

WELNA: Kolker was an assistant secretary for global health policy in the Obama administration. He's seen the U.S. get behind before on its payments to the WTO but never to the degree it has now. Amid the worst global health disaster of the past century, Kolker notes that close to $200 million were passed due the WHO prior to Trump's freeze on funding.

KOLKER: It's certainly irresponsible and reneging on a commitment that's very clear that we made and that we want to uphold and we want other countries to uphold.

WELNA: The money for the WHO was actually approved by Congress last year as part of a larger annual appropriation for the United Nations. Last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told NPR's weekend All Things Considered Trump won't get away with holding up that WHO funding indefinitely.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NANCY PELOSI: He can do it temporarily. But he can't do it as a policy. In other words, if he wants to hold up some money, it is questionable in terms of its legality. But he cannot stop the money ever from going.

WELNA: We're really talking here about two pots of money. The first is funding Congress has already approved. That's the money the U.S. has fallen behind on. The second pot of money is future spending for the WHO. A State Department spokesperson who requested anonymity tells NPR that the 60 to 90-day funding halt ordered by Trump only affects that new money for the WHO and not what Congress has already approved. Still, last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned on Fox News this might be the last money the WHO gets from the U.S.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE INGRAHAM ANGLE")

MIKE POMPEO: It may be the case that the United States can never return to underwriting...

LAURA INGRAHAM: Right.

POMPEO: ...To having U.S. taxpayer dollars go to the WHO. We may need to be - have even bolder change than that.

WELNA: Pompeo would like to send global health funding to groups other than the WHO. James Richardson, the State Department's director of foreign assistance, explains.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES RICHARDSON: There are plenty of amazing and highly qualified organizations implementing these programs around the world. And to be honest, no organization - or country, for that matter - is owed a single nickel from the American people.

WELNA: But with more than $200 million in unpaid dues, the U.S. actually owes the WHO well more than a nickel. The nation that's responsible for 15% of the WHOs budget now stands alone among the world's wealthy nations, not only in not paying off this year's annual assessment but last year's as well. Yet at the same time the U.S. is holding back on those payments, it did send $30 million to the WHO for its pandemic emergency response fund. Such mixed signals are why Ashish Jha, who directs Harvard's Global Health Institute, says Trump simply wants to make the WHO a scapegoat.

ASHISH JHA: I don't think that there is any real appetite in the U.S. government to walk away from WHO for the long run. This is much more political posturing. So the part of me just sort of says, we should take the president and this bluster a little less seriously.

WELNA: Especially when that president says he's freezing funding for the WHO when it turns out that money was already being held up.

David Welna, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.