WHO Proposes New Mode Of Engaging With Non-State Actors
Member States and non-state actors alike have expressed dissatisfaction with the current system, albeit for different reasons, according to WHO.

The World Health Organization (WHO) aims to make its engagement with non-state actors (non-state actors) more meaningful and efficient with a new proposal to establish a number of NSA fora that would allow exchange with WHO and member state representatives outside of official meetings.

The new proposal — which will be tested during the 74th World Health Assembly (WHA), 24 May to 1 June — would offer multiple side events in which non-state (NSA) actors could engage more informally with member state representatives as well as a forum for exchange between NSAs and WHO regional and technical staff.

But at the same time, non-state actors will be allotted a more limited number of constituency statements in formal governing body meetings – and like-minded groups of actors will be asked to combine their official statements together.

Non-state actors include civil society groups such as non-governmental organizations, international business and professional associations, and philanthropic foundations. More than 70 non-state actors are recognized as being “in official relations” with WHO, and thus contribute in formal meetings such as the EB and the WHA.

However, EB and WHA members have complained that the civil society interventions have become bogged down by too many lengthy, individual statements – and NSAs acknowledge that the statements often had limited impact in member state debates.

More informal meetings ahead of the formal meeting dates would help engender more meaningful interaction, WHO said in its proposal for the reform, which was reviewed by the WHO Executive Board on Saturday. Informal meetings will also allow non-state actors to organize themselves into constituencies, consolidating their positions into joint statements to be presented at official events.

The new arrangements to be tested in May, will “serve as a trial for potential future virtual informal meetings between non-state actors, Member States and the Secretariat, as a means of enabling more in-depth technical exchanges, as well as discussions on the Health Assembly agenda items,” said the WHO Secretariat, in its presentation to the EB on Saturday.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided added impetus for reforms that have long been in the making – insofar as the limitations of virtual meetings have also curtailed the interactions between member states and non-state actors.

According to the new proposal, the informal series of meetings with non-state actors will be held just ahead of the WHA, and thus prepare the groundwork for the formal meeting.

Role of Non-State Actors Has Evolved – But Increasing Number of Statements Detracted from Impact

In the discussion over the proposal, WHO officials stressed that the Organization “is and remains a Member State Organisation” — engaging with 77 non-state actors, at global, regional and country levels, who also support the development and implementation of the Organization’s policies and recommendations, technical norms and standards.

But while non-state actors have “served the Organization well for several decades”, the increasing number of non-governmental organizations and other non-state actors participating — often with a greater number of requests to speak — has “not resulted in a more meaningful involvement”.

For example, when civil society representatives speak one-by-one at the end of a discussion, their interventions have little impact on the content or direction of the debate, WHO contends.

Member States and non-state actors alike have expressed dissatisfaction with the current system, albeit for different reasons, says the WHO.

A virtual consultation by WHO further confirmed that non-state actors’ primary interests in attending governing body meetings are to participate in technical exchanges with the Secretariat and the Member States and to attend consultative hearings that feed into decision-making processes.

Meaningful Participation From NGOs Critical, Member States Say

The UK delegate said that it would allow NSAs to exert even more credible influence on member states attitudes and positions. The EB representative from the United States flagged that it is critical to ensure and enhance meaningful participation of non-state actors in WHO governing bodies, while also creating greater efficiency in the governance process.

“Non-State actor participation must be allowed in a transparent and accountable manner with an open door to input from all stakeholders including the private sector,” the delegate noted.

Austria pressed for the Secretariat to provide some more detailed information on the procedure for these meetings.

Other states, like Australia, flagged that the trial is very ambitious given the agenda for the 2021 assembly is already very crowded.

“We suggest that before agreeing to a trial, the number of meetings proposed to be repeated and streamlined,” the representative said.This would “provide reflections to technical areas in advance of the governing body meetings”.

Civil Society Groups Request Clarity and Procedure Details

Bodies like Health Action International asked for details as to how NGOs would participate, and for clarity on the processes governing such meetings.

“It is a remaining concern to those who have witnessed creeping capacity shrinking of NGO space and poor consultation in recent years,” said an HAI statement. The HAI delegate requested that similar procedures be implemented for WHO regional meetings with member states, also asking that  “these informal meetings compliment, but do not replace comprehensive consultations with non-state actors.”

Meanwhile, the European Society for Medical Oncology said the views and expertise of non-state actors should be introduced earlier in the WHO decision-making process; it would be of greater value if delivered at the onset of projects, and when member states are drafting zero draft decisions and resolutions.

“Direct interaction and discussion between member states, WHO offices, and Non-State actors would provide the opportunity for more in-depth exchanges, and partnerships, as the Member States, develop policies and implement actions to fulfill their WHO commitments,” said the ESMO spokesperson.

Silberschmidt stressed that the virtual informal meetings will not replace other channels, but become an additional avenue for interaction – highlighting the fact that Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director General, has already established a regular dialogue with civil society groups, to be held every six weeks.


Image Credits: WHO / Christopher Black.

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