The World Health Organization- the one that so commonly has starred in the news in recent years- connects countries, people and partners on the global scale for the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health. We all know, at least to some extent, about its role in this globalized world that finds itself fighting against a big, ever-changing and dynamic set of health threats. These range from global pandemics to neglected tropical diseases to lifestyle-related, non-communicable diseases. Moreover, they also include more multidisciplinary issues such as migration, war and conflict, and the devastating impact that climate change is already having in the health of many populations.

As mentioned above, we can all presume to be aware of what the WHO does and the impact it has on countries’ health policies. But have we ever dug around to find out how this globally recognized institution rules itself? Let’s try and understand this better before next week’s event: the World Health Assembly (WHA), which carries out the work of the organization along with the Executive Board (EB) and the Secretariat.

World Health Organization’s governing bodies

The WHA is formed by representatives- most commonly, health ministers- from the 194 Member States of the WHO which are all the UN members without Liechtenstein, plus the Cook Islands and Niue. The Executive Board, on the other hand, is composed of 34 technically qualified members elected by their countries for three-year terms. This is, while all Member States have representation on the WHA, only 34 are entitled to designate a person to serve on the Board. However, all Member States not represented on the Board may designate a representative who shall have the right to participate without vote in the deliberations of meetings of the Board.

The relationship between these two governing bodies is truly straightforward. On the one hand, the Executive Board meets twice a year: in January to agree upon the agenda for and resolutions to be considered by the World Health Assembly, as well as in May- shortly after the Assembly- to advise on and facilitate the implementation of the decisions made. On the other hand, the WHA, as the real decision-making body, follows the agenda proposed by the EB. It determines the policies of the Organization, appoints the Director-General and the EB members, supervises financial policies, and reviews and approves the proposed program budget.

The World Health Assembly: who, when, what

In addition to the 194 Member States, the WHA includes 2 Associate Members, Puerto Rico and Tokelau, and 7 agencies with observer status at the WHA: the Vatican, the Palestinian Authority, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the South Centre organization, and the Inter-Parliamentary Union. These people spend a week every May in Geneva at the Palace of Nations (WHO quarters) attending 3 types of events:

  • First, the plenary is the meeting of all delegates to the WHA. The plenary sessions happen several times throughout the week in order to listen to reports and adopt the resolutions transmitted by the committees. The Director-General and Member States also address the delegates at the plenary.
  • Second, the committees are smaller meetings to debate relevant issues as well as approve texts of resolutions that will later be submitted to the plenary meetings. There are 2 committees, one for technical and health matters (Committee A) and another one for financial and management issues (Committee B).
  • Third, technical briefings are organized separately for the duration of the Assembly. These focus on specific public health topics with the objectives of presenting new developments in the area, provide a forum for debate and allow for information sharing.

Non-state actors: how the young get to be heard

Other stakeholders besides Member States, Associate Member and the aforementioned observer agencies are allowed to follow the World Health Assembly proceedings and participate in technical briefings and official side events. These include mainly non-state actors in official relations with WHO, among which are delegations representing the young, such as IPSF (International Pharmaceutical Students Federation) and IFMSA (International Federation of Medical Students Association). Each of these delegations bring around 40 young people, from in and outside their organizations, and create a unified statement of approximately 3 min that they can bring out during the plenary to send a message to the conference.

These youth delegations have meetings in the days preceding the WHA to make sure that they are prepared to advocate and ensure the voice of youth is being heard at the most high-level global health decision-making event. This is a unique opportunity for youth health advocates from all over the world to develop skills, gain knowledge, and contribute to collective advocacy.

75th World Health Assembly: what to expect and how to follow

Normally, an agenda with the list of topics for discussion is released prior to the Assembly. But it is not timed and the Chair gets to decide the order in which the items are addressed. The last WHA, however, took place last November as the second special session in the history of the WHO. There was only one agenda item considered: the “consideration of the benefits of developing a WHO convention, agreement or other international instrument on pandemic preparedness and response with a view towards the establishment of an intergovernmental process to draft and negotiate such a convention, agreement or other international instrument on pandemic preparedness and response, taking into account the report of the Working Group on Strengthening WHO Preparedness and Response to Health Emergencies”.

After those initial negotiations to create an International Treaty on Pandemic Prevention, Preparedness and Response, the WHO is already gathering and posting all key documentation for the 75th WHA taking place next week, such as the provisional agenda, daily journals, and resolutions.

Hopefully, these events direct the WHO towards much-needed actions in a global, collective effort to improve the health of our planet and everyone living on it. If you want to support the young changemakers that will attend the WHA next week, you can do so by following and adding to the debate on their social media.

Almudena Sanz Gutiérrez
Almudena Sanz Gutiérrez

Almudena Sanz Gutiérrez holds a MSc in Clinical Research in International Health by the Universitat de Barcelona. As a young scientist, she is passionate about health equity and has started her career as a researcher in ISGlobal.


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