WOAH turns 100: reflections on WOAH’s role and evolution since 1924

25 January 2024 – Director General’s Opening Speech at the 100th anniversary celebration.

Dear Delegates and friends of WOAH,  

Today we are meeting to celebrate an important event in the history of WOAH, namely the 100th anniversary of its creation on 25 January 1924.  

What a long way we have come since the 28 founding countries signed the International Agreement marking the start of its existence!  

Today, we shall be looking back over these past 100 years. The aim will be not simply to recall the key stages that have forged the identity of the Organisation but to draw lessons for the future, given that WOAH is a major player of global sanitary governance and must ensure that it remains relevant in the long term. I also believe that knowing and understanding our history is important in order to re-clarify the core principles of the Organisation in a changing world and build the future with a shared vision.  

At the start of the venture, the project was far more limited than what it is today. The aim was to reach agreement on coordinated action to fight the spread of animal diseases by trade. Over the years, this historic mission has been enriched and the mandate broadened to include other activities.  It would of course take too long to recount a whole century of our existence.

Today, I would simply like to look back at some of the key milestones in the history of WOAH. It seems to me that we can distinguish 4 main phases in the construction and development of WOAH. 

The 1st phase began with the creation of the OIE, as an Organisation focusing on animal diseases. Its mandate was confined to two objectives: firstly, publishing the sanitary information notified by its Members and, secondly, elaborating standards aimed at ensuring safer trade.  This mandate – which remains central today – was given further resonance in 1995 by being formally recognised in the WTO’s SPS Agreement. The OIE thus became the technical reference Organisation on which the WTO could base its arbitration of trade disputes between countries. This recognition also influenced the partnership policy of the OIE, which proceeded to sign cooperation agreements with numerous other organisations. This expertise remains an essential basis for the Organisation, as managing sanitary information and elaborating standards are incontestably two fields in which WOAH remains to this day the sole competent international organisation.

The 2nd phase saw the diversification of the Organisation’s fields of intervention, with the development of standards for aquatic animals, the broadening of scope to include animal welfare, and a foray into the wildlife sector. 

Regarding aquatic animals, the first standards were published in 1968; several reference laboratories were added to the ones already existing for terrestrial animal diseases. Gradually over the years, our area of intervention was significantly expanded to include diseases of molluscs, crustaceans and amphibians.  

Today, we have a coherent strategic approach that considers aquatic animal health in a holistic manner, but more needs to be done as this sector still does not receive the attention it deserves.  

Regarding animal welfare, our commitment dates back to the beginning of the 2000s with the publication of the first standards and then the launch of regional strategies. Admittedly, this was a rather production-oriented approach but we have now managed to evolve towards a more welfare-oriented approach. 

Since 2017, we have in place a structured global strategy and we have established a Global Animal Welfare Forum to facilitate dialogue with the concerned stakeholders. Thus, over and above the standard-setting work, more general topics are discussed, such as the contribution of animal welfare to the Sustainable Development Goals or animal welfare economics.

Lastly, we are involved in wildlife health thanks to considerable effort to make a significant impact.  Our actions now take place within a Wildlife Health Framework. Several studies have been published; during the COVID-19 crisis, important recommendations were issued regarding trade in wildlife and wildlife surveillance; and the Organisation’s interventions are duly noted at events organised by partners such as CITES, UICN, etc. 

Let’s move on now to the 3rd phase of our history, marking another important change in the role the Organisation intends to play. In the 2000s, we complemented our disease or theme-based approach with a more transversal involvement on behalf of the Veterinary Services.   A marvellous project was launched and today everyone knows about:  

  • our PVS Pathway;  
  • our programme of twinning between laboratories, between veterinary education establishments and between Veterinary Statutory Bodies;  
  • and the veterinary education guidelines.

These programmes have become pillars of the Organisation’s mandate.  

Since I was elected, I have endeavoured to make the Organisation more inclusive, and advocacy on behalf of the Veterinary Services solely by promoting the veterinary profession has now evolved to advocacy on behalf of all those professionals working on a daily basis for animal health, namely veterinary paraprofessionals and community animal health workers. Today, we are working to strengthen the entire workforce.  

A few words now on the 4th and last phase I have identified; it revolves around two strong ideas: (1) strengthening the Organisation’s strategic approach to make the resulting actions more consistent, and (2) positioning the Organisation more strongly as a player at the intersection of critical global challenges, such as the One Health approach and the Sustainable Development Goals.  

As I have already said, WOAH’s involvement is now more clearly defined through framework strategies, which are then broken down into operational activities: animal welfare – the fight against antimicrobial resistance – aquatic animal health – the Wildlife Health Framework, as well as for some priority animal diseases (foot and mouth disease, peste des petits ruminants, rabies, African swine fever, avian influenza). 

And let us not forget that these strategies are also intended to open the Organisation to sustainable and operational partnerships, beyond the strict limits of veterinarians’ usual areas of intervention. As a matter of fact, I am convinced that WOAH can, and even should, play a role in resolving critical global issues. 

That is why, during my term of office, I have worked hard to ensure WOAH’s strong involvement within the Quadripartite and our presence at high-level events, thereby providing us with political visibility and legitimacy.  Position papers, statements or vision papers are already being published on topics such as livestock production, animal welfare, the use of growth promoters, etc. Tomorrow, we will need to make our voice more clearly heard in societal debates.  

Today, we are proud of our history. What lessons of the past can help us build the Organisation of tomorrow?

First and foremost, I wish to emphasise the importance of preserving our founding missions and the credibility they give WOAH. To that end, 

  • We need to ensure the scientific excellence of the standards produced, hence the importance of the evaluation of our science system and relevant Basic Texts currently underway, aimed at ensuring they are on a par with international best practices; 
  • In addition to scientific excellence, we need to ensure the relevance of standards, from the process of deciding on the choice of subjects to be covered through to an analysis of the conditions in which they are applied thanks to the surveys conducted by the Observatory; 
  • For the data recorded by the WAHIS system, there is a need to optimise their value added and to supplement these sanitary data with socio-economic data, to inform decision-making and better prioritise needs.

* * * * * 

Ladies and Gentlemen, we are operating in a world that is complex and ever-changing. A world where the preservation of natural environments is a source of concern with the intensification of animal production; a world where mobilising the players remains a constant challenge.  

Bearing that in mind, WOAH’s involvement will need to be strengthened, for example (1) by better identifying professional partners we can work with via innovative PPP projects, and (2) by further stimulating the creation of technical and scientific networks and their activities.  

This should help WOAH to express a clear position on topical issues, mindful of the need to consider animal health/the economy of animal production/the preservation of environments, within a perspective of sustainable development. 

Lastly, I believe the future of the Organisation will involve a greater momentum of our regional strategies. To this end, we need you, the Members and partners of the Organisation, and I hope that the information collected during PVS missions will help us to better identify your expectations and needs, thereby allowing more efficient deployment of our global strategies at a regional level and greater ownership of our activities at a national level.  

* * * * * 

Ultimately, after 100 years of existence, I think we can all acknowledge that WOAH has become:  

  • An Organisation that is concerned with all aspects of animal health, following a holistic approach.  
  • An Organisation whose voice is heard beyond its usual environment thanks to the expression of opinions and to partnerships that combine policy objectives and operational actions. 
  • An Organisation that is credible, allowing us to envisage exerting political influence at high-level international forums. We can thus hope that the negotiations underway at WHO on the future Pandemic Treaty will be an opportunity for WOAH to be legally recognised as an important player in future global health governance, along similar lines to the WTO SPS Agreement. 

Our Organisation has the strength to begin a new chapter in its history. And I thank you for helping us to write it.

Dr Monique Eloit.