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World Health Organization (WHO)

WHOI. Core Areas

The World Health Organization (WHO) aims for the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health. The Organization’s Constitution defines health as a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.

In support of its objective, WHO has a wide range of functions, including acting as the directing and coordinating authority on international health work; establishing and maintaining effective collaboration with the UN specialized agencies, governmental health administrations, professional groups and other organizations as may be deemed appropriate; assisting governments to strengthen their health services; furnishing appropriate technical assistance and, in emergencies, necessary aid; and proposing conventions, agreements and regulations, as well as making recommendations with respect to international health matters. The Organization also promotes improved teaching and training standards in the health, medical and related professions, and develops international standards for food, biological, pharmaceutical and similar products.

More than 8000 people from more than 150 countries work for the Organization in 147 country offices, six regional offices and at the headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Dr. Margaret Chan serves as the current Director-General since November 2006. WHO’s regular budget is supplied by assessed contributions on Member States and Associate Members. In addition, WHO receives voluntary contributions from Member States and other sources. The budget from both assessed and voluntary contributions for the biennium 2008-2009 is US$4.23 billion.

II. Engagement with External Actors

Civil Society

The policy for WHO’s relations with NGOs, including civil society organizations, is set out in Resolution WHA40.25, known as the Principles Governing Relations between WHO and Nongovernmental Organizations. “The objectives of WHO’s collaboration with NGOs and CSOs are to promote the policies, strategies and programmes derived from the decisions of the Organization’s governing bodies; to collaborate with regard to various WHO programmes in jointly agreed activities to implement these strategies; and to play an appropriate role in ensuring the harmonizing of inter-sectoral interests among the various sectoral bodies concerned in a country, regional or global setting.”

The Principles provide for two types of relations, formal and informal, and set out the types of relations at the global level and their development; criteria for the admission of NGOs into official relations with WHO; the procedure for admitting NGOs into official relations with WHO; relations with NGOs at the regional and national levels; privileges conferred on NGOs by relationship with WHO; and responsibilities of NGOs in their relationship with WHO.

Informal relations: The majority of WHO’s relations are informal. Information exchange and participation in each other’s meetings, in particular, are without time limit and without written agreement. However, such relations also permit agreements for collaboration on specific activities.

Official relations: The Executive Board can decide whether or not an NGO is admitted into official relations with WHO. Applications from NGOs are reviewed in order to determine whether they meet the criteria for admission set out in the Principles; one of the most important being that applicants should be international either in membership and/or in scope of activities. The basis of an official relationship is a mutually agreed three-year work plan and activities are reviewed by the Board on a triennial basis, with the Board deciding whether or not to maintain an NGO in official relations. The range of NGOs in official relations is wide, including medical and public health professions, science or disease specialists, patient and consumer organizations, women and youth organizations, development organizations, as well as service providers and trade associations. NGOs in official relations are able to participate in WHO’s governing bodies meetings, without the right of vote, and are entitled to make a statement.

The Civil Society Initiative fosters relations, where appropriate, between WHO and non-governmental and civil society organizations and is responsible for the administration of formal relations between such organizations and WHO. Relations are developed at the technical level, not with the Initiative. In the case of NGOs that have formal relations with WHO, each NGO is required to appoint a focal point(s), likewise for WHO. Thus, for the 185 NGOs in official relations with WHO, there are almost 300 focal points and their counterparts in WHO, known as Designated Technical Officers, number almost 90. With the exception of administrative departments, most of the Secretariat maintains either formal or ad-hoc informal links with NGOs and CSOs.

Extent of Collaboration

NGOs and CSOs contribute to the policy and standard setting work of the Organization, as well as collaborating on mutually agreed activities. The majority of such activities either take one of the following forms, or, resources permitting, combine several forms: advisory, advocacy, coordination and service provision, data collection and health-information management, emergency and humanitarian action, financial, human resources development, WHO participation in NGO/CSO meetings, professional, publications/media, scientific review and clinical support, research, standard-setting and development of nomenclature.

As a general rule, one-to-one collaborative activities tend towards projects that are one-off events, for example, joint training workshops or an international conference co-sponsored by WHO. Nonetheless, the effect of such relations can be far reaching. In the case of advocacy work, where NGOs disseminate information about the policies or activities of WHO, NGOs with members in a large number of countries can have an important impact on and contribute to informed debate at the national level. Collaboration with highly specialized NGOs is more likely to draw on their knowledge, for example, they may review scientific literature for WHO, or provide data, or pursue research activities. Their collaboration may also contribute to WHO’s role in standard setting.

Improved health status of individuals may be realized when collaborative activities bring together a range of organizations and entities. For example, the International Coordinating Group (ICG) on Vaccine Provision for Epidemic Meningitis Control was established in 1997 to coordinate the best use of the limited amount of vaccines available, to ensure that it was used where it was needed most, and to avoid wastage. The Group has among its members several NGOs, research institutions, and governmental health authorities. In 2007, 30 million doses of meningococcal vaccine have been channelled through the ICG mechanism. Another successful “networked” solution to delivering a public health benefit of major proportions concerns the elimination of iodine deficiency disorders (IDD). IDD affects over 740 million people, 13% of the world’s population, and 30% of the remainder are at risk. Since the 1980s, WHO has been working to achieve the elimination of IDD through the main strategy of universal salt iodization with the support of several NGOs. The number of countries where iodine deficiency is a public health problem was reduced to 54 in 2003, from 110 in 1993.

In addition to individual and/or networked activities, a number of partnerships, or initiatives, have been developed that provide for the participation of other bodies, including non-governmental and civil society organizations. Such participation is another way NGOs and CSOs may link forces with WHO.

Private Sector

WHO is conscious of the potential of collaboration with the private sector at global, regional and country levels. Such collaboration enables WHO to reach wider audiences and to have a more significant impact on global public health through scientific research on improved health interventions as well as through facilitating access to health care, vaccines and drugs. Formal or informal public-private health partnerships have been established around a range of advocacy, service and in-kind or financial support activities. Examples include the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, the Polio Eradication Initiative, Vision 20/20, the Global Vitamin A Alliance and the Global Programme to Eliminate Lymphatic Filariasis. Guidelines have been developed for the Organization’s work with the private sector to achieve health outcomes, which also address issues such as safeguarding of WHO norms and standards for public health and potential conflicts of interest.

Indigenous Peoples

Through a number of World Health Assembly (WHA) resolutions, the WHO is mandated to protect and promote the right of indigenous peoples to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health. The Health and Human Rights Team within the Department of Ethics, Trade, Human Rights and Health Law pursues WHO’s work in this regard. WHO has also developed a guide for Indigenous Peoples and communities on Substance Abuse.

Other Actors

The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) has observer status with the World Health Assembly.

III. Organizational Resources

At the headquarter level, a unit is in place and includes two full time staff under the direction of the Director for Government, Civil Society and Private Sector Relations. Counterparts at each WHO Regional Office serve in the same capacity. The WHO country offices may also work with national NGOs.

Focal Point

Title: Director a.i., Partnerships
Address: 20 avenue Appia, CH-1211 Geneva 27, Switzerland
Telephone: +41-22-791-2790/3637
Fax: +41-22-791-1380
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

IV. Information Resources

* WHO Website
* Principles Governing Relations between WHO and Non-governmental Organizations
* Civil Society Initiative
* Guidelines on Working with the Private Sector to Achieve Health Outcomes

Additional Resources
* Information on partnerships
* WHO and Civil Society: Linking for Better Health
* Information on the Study of WHO’s Official Relations with NGOs
* Understanding Civil Society Issues for WHO
* Strategic Alliances—The Role of Civil Society in Health
* Indigenous Peoples and Substance Use Project: A Guide to Action Demands
* Health and Human Rights of Indigenous Populations

The UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service (UN-NGLS) is an inter-agency programme of the United Nations mandated to develop constructive relations between the UN and civil society organizations.


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