Date Published:2014 Feb
The World Health Organization (WHO) has never fulfilled its original mission of simultaneously serving as the world's pre-eminent public health authority and intergovernmental platform for global health negotiations. While WHO's secretariat works hard to fulfill both functions, it is undermined by an institutional design that mixes technical and political mandates. This forces staff to walk uncomfortably along many fine lines: advising but never directing; guiding but never governing; leading but never advocating; evaluating but never judging. The result is mediocrity on both fronts. Instead, WHO should be split in two, separating its technical and political stewardship functions into separate entities, with collaboration in areas of overlap. The Executive Board and secretariat would be bifurcated, with technical units reporting to a Technical Board and political units reporting to a Political Board. Both boards would report to the World Health Assembly where all member states would continue to provide ultimate oversight. Such bold changes can be implemented either by revising WHO's constitution or through simpler mechanisms. Either way, structural governance reforms would need to be accompanied by complementary changes in culture that support strengthened political decision-making and scientific independence. States' inability to act on WHO's institutional design challenges will only lead them and non-state actors to continue bypassing the organization through the creation of new entities as they have done over the last 15 years. The key will be to mobilize those advocates and decision-makers who have the audacity to demand more from WHO and convince member states to elevate their ambitions in current WHO reform efforts. Continued progress in global health depends on it.