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Commentary

WHO’s in Charge?
Philip Stevens, National Review Online, 12-2-05

Stevens registers his dismay that the agenda of the World Health Organization has been co-opted by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) whose social and political objectives do little to advance public health, and evince an outright hostility to market forces.

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.

Increasing foreign aid on public health in poor nations is an attractive quick fix. But it is likely to fail, so long as poor countries neglect the rule of law and property rights, and embrace destructive trade and tariff policies (for instance, taxes on imported AIDS drugs) that hurt their own citizens. NGOs are unlikely to embrace political and economic reforms, however, because they aren't amenable to easy sloganeering. But policymakers have an obligation to make sure that their development policies are doing more good than harm. They should focus their efforts on political and economic reforms that will make a difference in the long run.



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