Editorial: WHO & worries

British, European and American diplomats and donors have voiced serious concerns about how the World Health Organisation handled sex abuse allegations involving its own staff during an outbreak of Ebola in Congo, as reported this week by The Associated Press.

On Tuesday, the AP published an investigation documenting that senior WHO management was informed of multiple sex abuse allegations involving at least two of its doctors during the epidemic in 2018. A notarized contract obtained by the AP showed that two WHO staffers signed off on an agreement between WHO’s Dr. Jean-Paul Ngandu and a young woman he allegedly impregnated in Congo.

In it, Ngandu promised to pay the young woman money, cover her pregnancy costs and buy her a plot of land. The contract was made to protect the integrity and reputation of the organization, Ngandu said.

The UK has a zero tolerance approach when it comes to sexual exploitation and harassment and that extends to all international organizations that we fund, said Simon Manley, the UK’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva. We are speaking with WHO and other major donors as a matter of urgency to establish the facts. Britain is WHO’s second biggest donor, after the US. The US State Department had no immediate comment.

WHO has declined to comment on the specific allegations reported by the AP and said it is waiting for the results of a panel created last October to investigate sexual abuse during the Congo outbreak involving WHO staffers. What’s alarming is that WHO seems to be keeping this abuse quiet and not publicly condemning these allegations, said Clare Wenham, an assistant professor of global health policy at the London School of Economics, who has studied gender and funding issues at WHO.

There’s a lot of talk about giving WHO more money but I don’t think any government should be committing to that until we know it’s an organization we can trust. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the agency’s third-largest funder, said it expects UN agencies to conduct thorough investigations into sexual abuse as quickly as possible.

Lawrence Gostin, director of the WHO Collaborating Center on Global Health Law at Georgetown University, said the ultimate responsibility for WHO’s Ebola response lies with director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. It is time for action.


NT Bureau