WHO's In Charge?

Sign outside World Health Organization headquarters, Geneva, Switzerland
This column was written by Philip Stevens.
Last week the World Health Organization resolved, in the name of improving human health, that the world should beef up welfare provision, stiffen employment legislation, impose tougher regulations on a host of industries, and promote the reach of government into practically every aspect of life. This is the program peddled by powerful multinational NGOs; this is the sure socialist policy for perpetuating poverty; this is an agency 20 percent funded by the United States.

The WHO — the U.N. agency responsible for global health — invited various NGOs and members of "civil society" to Stockholm to discuss its strategic direction for the next decade. On the guest list were representatives from powerful multinational NGOs such as Oxfam, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), and Save the Children.

The whole exercise was actually rather superfluous, as the strategy document read like a fantasy wish-list for the big NGOs being consulted. Indeed, there is little in there that would have looked out of place in the Communist Manifesto.

This WHO strategy document lays bare the power big NGOs now have in shaping WHO policy. The document is bursting with things for which the various NGOs at the consultation have lobbied long and hard.

It is no coincidence that the WHO's agenda is uncannily similar to that of the NGOs. These groups have been colonizing the WHO for many years and now wield enormous influence.

But what exactly is the agenda of these NGOs? While they are clearly motivated by a desire to improve the conditions for the poor, they cling to a set of beliefs that have been utterly discredited.

High on the agenda of these NGOs is a call for more "aid" transfers from rich to poor countries. They hope that using such funds to build up public-health infrastructure will encourage economic growth and offer a sustainable path out of poverty.

History and experience tells us that the opposite is likely to be the case. One study shows that a vast proportion of child deaths could be averted for as little as $10 each, but public-health systems in the poorest countries spend $50,000 to $100,000 on each life saved. This breathtaking inefficiency is hardly surprising when one considers the levels of corruption that plague the health bureaucracies of the world's poorest countries.

Seen in this light, the unconditional pouring of money into the public-health systems of lower-income countries is highly irresponsible.

Yet years of NGO advocacy have ensured that the WHO does not abandon such aid transfers, even though they have been shown to prop up oppressive, undemocratic regimes. As a result, the trillions of dollars that have been spent on aid in the past 50 years have had no net impact on economic growth or life expectancy. Worse, African average product per capita and life-expectancy have fallen during the last few decades.