The World Health Organisation spends twice as much on travel as it does on medical supplies, it has emerged, as the organisation continues to face criticism over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Figures from the WHO's most recent financial reports show it spent 8 per cent of its US$2.2 billion (NZ$3.6b) budget on travel expenses, compared to 4 per cent on medical supplies and materials.

The figure, revealed in its Results Report 2018-19, has been seized on by the WHO's critics - particularly in the United States, where the organisation has come under fierce attack.

Of the amount spent on travel, 45 per cent was on staff travel costs, while the rest was incurred by health experts and local officials working on the ground with the WHO. Staff costs made up 41 per cent of the organisation's total budget - the single largest amount.

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Even observers sympathetic with the WHO told the Telegraph the organisation faces a "constant battle" to reign in costs and risks alienating member states if it fails to do so.

Last week, President Trump announced he was cutting off funding for the WHO, accusing its officials of undermining the fight against Covid-19 by being too close to China.

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The US is the single biggest contributor to the WHO's annual budget and his decision will be a severe blow to its efforts to combat disease around the world.

Trump's move enjoys widespread backing among Republican politicians, who have long called for an investigation into how much the US contributes to the WHO.

Florida Senator Rick Scott said earlier this month American taxpayers should not "continue to spend millions of dollars every year to fund an organisation that willfully parroted propaganda from the Chinese Communist Party".

The President's announcement has been widely condemned as an attempt to deflect from his own failings in tackling coronavirus in the US, particularly in its early stages, but there has been persistent criticism of the WHO's spending.

The headquarters of the World Health Organisation and UNAIDS, in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo / Getty Images
The headquarters of the World Health Organisation and UNAIDS, in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo / Getty Images

The amount the WHO spends on travel is one of the most controversial areas of its annual budget.

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It was revealed last year it spent nearly US$192 million on travel expenses in 2018, with members of staff sometimes breaking the agency's own rules by traveling in business class or booking expensive last-minute tickets.

That figure was down 4 per cent from 2017, when the agency promised to rein in travel costs.

That year an investigation by the Associated Press news agency revealed the WHO spent roughly US$200 million each year on travel, including first-class airplane tickets and five-star hotels for its then director-general, Margaret Chan.

Her successor, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, promised to take action and banned first class travel for all staff.

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Sophie Harman, professor of international politics at Queen Mary University, London, told The Telegraph: "Travel costs have been a public relations nightmare for the WHO, especially when they say they need more money from member states. It's hard to justify increasing its budget when everyone is flying business class.

"It's a constant battle because it used to be seen as an entitlement, but they have made reforms and tightened up spending."

Harman said the WHO had made the mistake of allowing itself to be used by Trump in his battle with the Chinese government.

"It has a massive China problem which is going to shape their relationship with other states who secretly think Trump has a point," she said.

The WHO said its work was critical to the world's efforts to win the war against Covid-19 and now was not the time to cut its resources.

A spokeswoman for WHO said: "With employees in nearly every country in the world handling many health priorities and emergencies (we are managing nine emergencies at the present time), travel is a necessity.

"WHO employs nearly 7000 people worldwide. When staff travel, they do a range of things, including responding to emergencies, assessing countries' emergency preparedness, implementing vaccine and other public health campaigns, training health workers, and more."

She added: "It should be noted that usually less than half of WHO's total travel costs are for staff. More than half are costs incurred to bring representatives of Member States - mostly from low- and middle-income countries - and outside experts to technical and governance meetings. This is a central part of WHO's work."

Covid19.govt.nz: The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website