Part of the UN system, the 60-year-old World Health Organization (WHO) is the world's designated leader for global health issues, particularly in the developing world. At the same time, the WHO's mandate is limited because it can only recommend, not enforce, specific health policies. The organization attracted notice in the spring of 2009 with the onset of the swine flu (H1N1 virus) and its declaration of a growing pandemic for the first time in more than forty years. Some critics say the WHO's focus is too broad (Slate) but global health experts say its mandate reflects the desire for a universal agency. Experts say a big challenge going forward will be maintaining the WHO's global leadership among a crowded field of international health organizations, many of which have more resources at their disposal.
A Broad Health Mandate
The WHO was created in 1948 out of discussions in the nascent United Nations about the need for a global health organization. Headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, it now has offices in 147 countries and six regional offices. It was not intended to provide health services but rather to be a coordinating body for global health policy implemented by national and international health agencies. The WHO primarily makes recommendations and has no power to directly intervene in national health systems. Scott Rosenstein, global health fellow at the Eurasia Group, a U.S.-based analytical group, says though it was originally intended to be "a big-picture institution," it also has many on-the-ground programs. Its annual budget in 2009 was close to $5 billion.
The WHO's original programs included malaria, women's and children's health, tuberculosis, nutrition, and environmental sanitation. It now monitors and coordinates on many other issues, including safety guidelines for genetically modified foods, adaptation to climate change, reducing tobacco...