Are individuals or institutions the engine of International Geneva?

American businessman Bill Gates speaks at a conference under the motto 'Reach every child' of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (Gavi) in Berlin, Germany, 27 Janaury 2015. (Credit: GAVI/Oscar Seykens)

Geneva’s success has been shaped over more than a century by its international institutions but also by the actions of influential figures. As challenges become more global and complex, which will become more important to drive change?

In early September, a team of journalists in the US and Europe published a mammoth 50-page report examining the power wielded by a group of organisations, and the influential individuals that run them, in shaping the global response to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

At the centre of the seven-month investigation by Politico and Die Welt are the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance that Gates helped establish, British research foundation The Wellcome Trust, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). The article details how together they used their clout to direct the international response to Covid and played a critical role in advising governments and the World Health Organization (WHO), spending over $10bn in the process. 

The backdrop for much of this politicking, lobbying, financing and negotiation is of course Geneva – the headquarters of the WHO, Gavi, and the world’s capital of health governance. In short, the article makes a good case in point for the critical role a handful of actors, namely Bill Gates, Gavi chief Seth Berkley and WHO director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, among others, can have in shaping not only the global health response, but also International Geneva.

The first visionaries 

Ever since Henry Dunant helped inspire the founding of the Red Cross in 1863, International Geneva owes much of its identity and success over to the humanitarians, philanthropists, diplomats or other visionaries that have helped bring ideas, financing or entrepreneurial energy to the multilateral hub’s different fields of work.

More recently in philanthropy, family scions such as Ivan Pictet, Patrick Odier, or André Hoffman have helped lend a public face to International Geneva and contribute to its causes from diplomacy to sustainable finance or environmental conservation. At the UN, charismatic leaders, like the late Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary general and the founder of the Geneva foundation that bears his name, left a strong legacy behind them. 

But how much of that success of International Geneva is reliant on these individuals themselves or the strength of the institutions and organisations they lead? For Henry Peter, director of the University of Geneva’s Centre of Philanthropy, “individuals are key” but the sheer scale of global problems today that need to be addressed mean that no philanthropist will be able to tackle them alone.

“We’re moving away from a traditional model of philanthropy, made up of individuals that give away a part of their wealth, to a new version which is done more through companies and institutions, because today’s challenges are so huge that you need to join forces, even if you’re very rich,” Peter said, citing Gavi, established by the Gates foundation, as an example. “They are not acting alone.” 

Creating strong institutions

As one International Geneva observer put it, “great leaders come and go, but institutions stay”, citing a remark shared with him by an opposition leader during peace talks in Africa.  “Certain leaders bring energy and motivation with them, but they will at some point leave. Therefore, the organisations by themselves also need to be resilient,” he added. 

This, however, can be difficult for international organisations to achieve, for example, when member states in charge of the decision-making are at odds with each other, or when they do not take the lead in driving reform. One example of this is the WHO, which for years has been over-reliant on voluntary contributions by non-governmental donors, namely Bill Gates, as member state contributions stagnated. 

Suerie Moon, global health expert and co-director of the Global Health Centre at the Graduate Institute, echoes this view: “Over the last few years, there has been an accumulation of many health issues that absolutely have to be addressed at the international level. And that will rely on strong leadership, but not just a few leaders. It will rely on organisations that cope well and that are well-funded, including the WHO,” she said. 

Moon also points out that for the last two decades, global health in International Geneva has in many ways been defined by financing development, citing the creation of institutions like the Global Fund, supported in large part by the Gates Foundation, Gavi and UN agencies like Unitaid.

“I think it’s a very different future because as more and more countries have developed economically they rely less on the international system for money. And that has major implications for where we'll be in 20 years in health.”

What will be irreplaceable, however, is the need for a place for political negotiation and governance, Moon said. “And that happens under the auspices of the WHO – look at the pandemic treaty which is being negotiated now.”

Fixing the trust deficit gap

For Michael Møller, former director general of the UN in Geneva, “a massive trust deficit”, not only in global governance but in institutions and among countries, will force organisations to become more efficient as the world becomes more discerning about how they are run.

“We are moving into an era where the acceptance and trust and the financing of any kind of organisation, whether big or small, is going to be more and more important,” he told Geneva Solutions. 

In a rapidly changing world, the future of International Geneva, and global governance as a whole will be about “the survival of the fittest” he said, where the institutions that survive will be those that are able to adapt the fastest. “We can no longer afford to have non-performing organisations.”

International Geneva will also need new public faces; individuals willing to take risks, to speak up for multilateralism and push for those reforms that will be essential in hauling institutions into the 21st century. However, this is not limited to leaders of institutions, Møller added.

“For organisations to change fundamentally, other actors are going to also have to step in and play a role – not just those who are in charge already. This includes actors in civil society, in the business community, and in the youth community.” 

He added: “On the one hand, International Geneva as a concept is a kind of mixture between reality and wishful thinking. On the other, International Geneva for the future is what we have at the present, this incredible ecosystem of many, many actors – but turbocharged.”

This article was published as part of a special 2nd anniversary print edition of Geneva Solutions, published in collaboration with Le Temps.