Global Governance Centre
25 September 2020

How the WHO Could Avoid Getting Fooled Again

This post evaluates the possible ways to evaluate the performance of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and seek accountability for its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This article is part of the series Governance, in crisis.

By Kit De Vriese
Generalist international lawyer, Lindeborg Counsellors at Law

Dhruv Sharma
Advocate, India





Our first two contributions (see here and here) assessed the role played by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the slow decay of global governance and international cooperation exemplified by the present crisis.

The rapid spread and relatively high death rate of the virus is likely explained by a combination of unfortunate sequences and events, along with States’ political influence and indifference at the beginning of the pandemic and, more fundamentally, lack of political cooperation.

preliminary assessment of the WHO’s response to the COVID-19 crisis highlights certain substantive areas that could be the focus of an independent assessment of the WHO’s work. With political pressure rather than cooperation being the norm, the WHO has made mistakes, and responded unsatisfactorily to the pandemic, offering impetuous advice on travel bans, border closures, and discarding the use of face masks in the early stages. However, the Organisation subsequently shifted gears and currently seems to be coordinating the international response.

As Aristotle once said, “criticism is something we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing”. Rather than looking backwards, this post seeks to undertake a tour d’horizon of some possible procedural forms of review. The point of a review could be to provide for accountability, (merely) improve functional efficiency, or avoid or at least mitigate future health emergencies. Whatever its justification, the raison d’être of review is to avoid making the same mistakes, or to get ‘fooled’ by stakeholders. To that extent this post will analyse the potential of external, internal, and peer-led review of the WHO.


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Note: The views expressed in this post are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of any institution with which they are or have been affiliated. Nor do they necessarily reflect the views of any of their current or former clients.


Image credit: UN Photo / Loey Felipe