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EXCLUSIVE: U.N. World Health Organization Faces Plague of Tightwads

Rapidly developing nations – such as China, India and Brazil – that want an increased role in decision-making at the United Nations are among the stingiest donors to the U.N.’s World Health Organization, which is facing its most serious financial crisis ever. 

And two oil superpowers, Iran and Saudi Arabia, which benefit from WHO’s research, gave less than $3 million in total, according to records presented at the organization’s World Health Assembly in Geneva. (The Assembly wraps up its deliberations on May 24.) 

WHO funding for the next two years is currently $3 billion short of its roughly $4 billion goal, most of which comes from the United States and other developed Western countries. 

Like most U.N. organizations, WHO budgets over two-year terms and the organization expects to end this year with a deficit. The organization is already tightening its belt significantly: over 2012-2013, WHO expects to spend about 13 percent less on programs than in the previous biennium. 

The chief source of that money is voluntary donations from WHO supporters -- which usually means about 30 Western nations and Japan

Those nations, however, are facing painful budget crises of their own. Bridging WHO’s budgetary chasm would be a lot easier if a variety of nations that want a larger voice in U.N. affairs agreed to step up their contributions. 

But their track record is dismal. 

Among the most notable tightwads are the so-called BRIC nations -- Brazil, Russia, India and China -- usually cited as the leading economic edge of the developing world, and most of which are demanding a greater say in a wide variety of U.N. organizations. (Russia, a veto-wielding Security Council member, already has plenty of say.) 

China, with a population of about 1.6 billion people, contributed $1.2 million out of $1.57 billion in voluntary donations to WHO last year, or about 0.75 cents per person. India, with about 1 billion people, contributed less than half that much: $481,000 -- less than 0.5 cents per person. Brazil, with about 190 million people, gave $350,000, or less than 0.2 cents per capita, while Russia, with about 142 million people, contributed $10.34 million, or about 7 cents per head. 

The BRIC nations are not WHO’s only tightwads. Petropower Saudi Arabia gave the health organization only $2.5 million last year, and OPEC’s international development fund gave little more than half that amount, $1.4 million. South Korea, with an economy roughly the size of Canada’s, gave about the same amount as Saudia Arabia. 

Yet another regional power, Nigeria, which is Africa’s most populous nation and a major petro-exporter, contributed $801,000, or roughly 0.5 cents per person. 

South Africa, another aspiring international power, gave just more than $400,000. Mexico, a major oil exporter, gave a paltry $13,300 -- or less than one-seventh as much as teeny Andorra, which donated more than $96,000. 

“It’s remarkable that nations like India, China, Brazil and Nigeria, which aspire to international prominence in the U.N. system, provide no leadership in financing international organizations like WHO,” says Brett Schaefer, an expert on U.N. finances at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “Countries that have the capacity to pay more, simply don’t.” 

And some apparently don’t pay anything. The Islamic Republic of Iran, which is spending hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars on an illicit nuclear weapons program, and has a long list of harshly declared grievances against the West, is not listed as a donor to WHO at all. (Iran is, however, a 9 percent shareholder of the Islamic Development Bank, which contributed about $1.7 million.)

Click here for the full donor list.

By contrast, even in the midst of their own financial woes, Western nations are still pulling most of WHO’s weight. As usual, the U.S. led the donor nation pack last year, with just less than $280 million donated -- and second place belonged not to another country, but to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which donated $219.8 million. That was followed by the United Kingdom, which gave $115 million, and then by Rotary International, which donated more than $71 million. 

The European Commission, representing united Europe, came up with $57.2 million. On a per capita basis, the most generous nation by far is undoubtedly Norway, which donated $55.9 million, and has a population of about 4.7 million. Per capita giving: about $11.90 per person. A variety of United Nations organizations also make substantial contributions to WHO, totaling at least $187 million. But these organizations, in turn, get most of their money from the same small list of donors that WHO does. 

The question is, will that change? A year ago, WHO apparently thought that the answer might lie in a variety of new forms of global taxation, including levies on Internet activity or online financial transactions, which could have led to billions in new revenues. 

Click here to read the story.

That approach apparently died on the drawing board. Now, in its latest paper on “future funding for WHO,” the organization says it will “seek to attract new donors and explore new sources of funding” that include “drawing on Member States with emerging economies, foundations and the private and commercial sector.” All of which, the paper adds, will require “a more effective and corporate approach to resource mobilization.” 

From its current donor list, it appears that Western countries, foundations, and the private sector have all stepped up to the plate, at least in comparison to anyone else. It’s how the governments and elites of those emerging economies respond that may be the make-or-break difference for WHO in the future. 

George Russell is executive editor of Fox News and can be found on Twitter @GeorgeRussell.