The European Commission (EC) reportedly suspended funding this week for World Health Organization (W.H.O.) programs in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) over concerns about mismanagement of W.H.O.’s massive sexual abuse scandal.
The decision to suspend funding was made on October 7 and communicated to W.H.O. in a letter marked “sensitive,” according to a Reuters report Thursday.
Neither the EC or W.H.O. announced the suspension to the public – which could mean more trouble for the latter agency, which is in very hot water with its donors over the Congo scandal. Those angry donors will not be pleased to learn they were kept in the dark about the European Union (EU) withholding funds for W.H.O. programs.
Reuters reported the “sensitive” letter outlined the suspension of $24 million in funding for five W.H.O. programs in the Congo, including its Ebola and coronavirus programs.
Vital as those operations might seem, the Ebola program, in particular, played a major role in the abuse scandal, which saw W.H.O. doctors and managers accused of demanding sexual favors from local women in exchange for employment.
— Reuters (@Reuters) October 28, 2021
The EC said it expects organizations it funds to have “robust safeguards to prevent such unacceptable incidents as well as to act decisively in such situations.”
This reads as a vote of no confidence in W.H.O.’s much-touted efforts to respond to the scandal. The EC said it would re-evaluate the situation in November and could renew the suspension for another 30 days if progress has not been made.
Reuters saw the scandal, and W.H.O’s unsatisfactory response, as a growing problem for Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus:
Tedros, widely believed to be seeking a second five-year term in May, has steered the global response to COVID-19, the worst public health crisis in a century. But major donors led by the United States and Germany have demanded fundamental reforms to its ability to deal with outbreaks and the scandal.
Some 83 aid workers, a quarter of them employed by the WHO, were involved in sexual coercion and abuse during Congo’s 10th Ebola epidemic, an independent commission said last month. The report cited nine allegations of rape.
The European Commission’s letter, addressed to Tedros, voices “extreme concern” over the “magnitude of the findings”.
The incumbent W.H.O. director is, nevertheless, a shoo-in for “re-election” to another term, since no one was nominated to run against him. Reuters on Friday quoted U.N. sources who said there was little appetite for holding Tedros responsible for the Congo scandal or the much-criticized response to it:
A European source, asked whether the Congo scandal could have an impact on Tedros’ re-election, said: “Nope. He personally is taking the right steps and measures. As long as there is not a direct link to him. Which I don’t see.”
An African ambassador in Geneva, declining to be identified, said: “Dr. Tedros has done a very good job dealing with a severe pandemic with severe repercussions. He has tried to contribute within the capacity and the resources of WHO and to realize a more equitable distribution of vaccines at the global level.”
“He is a friend of Africa, he has done a lot of work and deserves a lot of support,” the ambassador said.
Reuters noted a copy of the suspension letter was sent to the Code Blue Campaign, a watchdog for U.N. sexual abuse complaints established by the AIDS-Free World international advocacy group. The name of the campaign is a reference to the blue helmets worn by U.N. peacekeepers.
Code Blue has been deeply unsatisfied with W.H.O.’s response to the Congo scandal, as stated by co-director Paula Donovan:
The W.H.O. is treating dozens of violent crimes alleged against its own personnel and top officials as simple breaches of U.N. rules. If governments allow the U.N. to get away with this, it will be a solid victory for U.N. impunity. The entire process reinforces the bogus notion that U.N. personnel and senior officials are above the law.
“W.H.O. created a years-long smokescreen to mislead the world into believing that if U.N. personnel rape and abuse women and children, the only response required is a U.N. self-investigation to determine whether its own rules and regulations have been broken,” Donovan charged.
“W.H.O. officials themselves should be investigated for a prolonged obstruction of justice that violates the rights of victims and the citizens of the DRC,” she demanded.
Donovan was criticizing a plan billed by W.H.O. as a “profound transformation” of the organization, including $7.6 million in funding for investigation and response in the ten countries that have the “highest risk profile” for sexual abuse. One of those countries is Afghanistan, where W.H.O. and the U.N. certainly have no shortage of problems to address beyond worrying about its own predatory doctors and supervisors.
The Congo scandal expanded this week when even more women came forward to report abuse and exploitation by aid workers.
Reuters reported on Wednesday that 83 aid workers now stand accused of sexual coercion during the latest Ebola outbreak in the DRC, about a quarter of them W.H.O. employees. At least nine accusations of outright rape have been filed, including a 14-year-old girl who claimed a W.H.O. driver raped her after she accepted his offer of a ride, and wound up giving birth to his child.
W.H.O.’s acting director of response to sexual abuse, Dr. Gaya Gamhewage, claimed the rising number of allegations was proof that the organization’s improved systems “are beginning to work.” The European Commission apparently disagrees.
Gamewage said the entire list of accused personnel will be referred to the United Nations, as many of the suspects are not W.H.O. employees, but all of their names will be loaded into a database for screening job applicants at W.H.O. and all other U.N. agencies.