World Health Assembly Coverage: The Fluff and Lies of the WHA

Richard Tren | 20 May 2005
TCS Daily

GENEVA -- When attending a United Nations meeting, there comes a time when you simply have to escape. After just four days at the 58th World Health Assembly in Geneva and after a persistent headache and increasing bouts of nausea, my body was telling me that the time had come to get out of there. It is hard to say exactly what led to the visceral reactions to the WHA. No doubt it was a number of things. But it left me wondering what the WHO is all about and whether we wouldn't be better off without it.

I was struck at this confab, as I have been at other UN meetings, how it provides a useful meeting place for world's bureaucratic elite. You are likely to overhear a delegate from Malawi greeting one from Bangladesh and recalling the happy times they spent together in New York or Stockholm at one or other conference. One has to wonder how the taxpayers of these countries would react if they saw their delegates lounging around in the cafeterias or nodding off during the interminable discussions.

But the WHA doesn't just provide a welcome sojourn for bureaucrats in Geneva; it also provides an influential platform for various interest groups. For instance, the leftist group Consumers International has held several meetings within the UN building in order advance its anti-intellectual property rights agenda.

One meeting discussed the idea of patent pools for AIDS medicines, which I discussed earlier on TCS. Another meeting discussed the role that intellectual property plays in blocking access to medicines and the panellists encouraged countries to issue compulsory licences for the generic production of AIDS drugs. Martin Khor of the Third World Network cited, in glowing terms, the example of Zimbabwe which issued compulsory licences more than two years ago.

Hearing a well known social activist praising the government of Zimbabwe at the UN is probably what brought on my rising nausea. I questioned Martin Khor about this, bewildered as to how a brutal, tyrannical and undemocratic state could possibly provide answers for the rest of the world. I asked Khor how the issuing of compulsory licences had affected the number of people receiving treatment, but he had no answer. Khor could tell the audience that the price of AIDS drugs had been reduced, but hadn't bothered to check whether or not this had actually improved healthcare outcomes.

For me this was an enlightening moment. The many left wing groups at the WHA assume the moral high ground and claim to speak for those that need treatment. Yet it seems that in reality they are more interested in pursuing a political agenda and campaigning against drug patents than actually improving healthcare in poor countries. One would have thought that the very first thing that Third World Network or any of the other cabal of leftist groups that advocate compulsory licensing would do would be to travel to Zimbabwe to see what difference their campaign has made for the thousands that need AIDS treatment. Yet this seems not to have been their priority.

The answer to the question I posed to Khor is that access to treatment has barely changed at all. A report I wrote with my colleague Roger Bate after several visits to Zimbabwe details the tragic destruction of the Zimbabwean healthcare system. Compulsory licences haven't made any significant difference in Zimbabwe because of the appalling poverty, lack of healthcare infrastructure and politicisation of health in that country. If Zimbabwe is the best example of how their campaigns improve healthcare, the anti-IP campaign must be on shaky ground.

Unfortunately the mendacity does not stop at the side events of the WHA, but are carried into the plenary sessions as well. While sitting through a discussion on malaria, the government of Zimbabwe noted that healthcare was being harmed in that country because it could not get a grant from the Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria. The reality is that the government of Zimbabwe has harmed healthcare itself and has stripped the Department of Health of funds in order to strengthen the army and secret police's grip on the unfortunate population.

Things got worse when the representative from Myanmar cautioned that the Millennium Development Goals were not going to be met and that greater effort and commitment was needed. Myanmar is ruled by one of the world's most repressive and brutal governments; why then should it care whether or not the Millennium Development Goals are being met? It is the government of Myanmar itself that has led the charge against prosperity, development and basic human rights. Bleating about the Millennium Development Goals in Geneva as though some other government or agency should take responsibility is utterly absurd.

And so my time in Geneva is over, but the UN behemoth will continue to meet for another five days. There is no doubt that the technical sessions and scientific review meetings are valuable and contribute to better healthcare around the world. However, these meetings could be held on a much smaller scale and should be confined to the scientists and public health officials that actually do the difficult job of preventing disease.

As far as I can tell, the rest is pure fluff. The mental masturbation, the wasted time, the lies and excuses that are all a feature of these UN meetings cost taxpayers around the world tens of millions of dollars and provide very little return. For the sake of the millions who die from preventable and curable diseases, the WHO has to be dramatically reformed or even scrapped before progress can be made.

Tren is a director of the health advocacy group Africa Fighting Malaria.