Who Cares? the World Health Organization Cares More about Its Own Life Than the Lives of the Poor

By Doherty, Brian | Reason, January 2002 | Go to article overview

Who Cares? the World Health Organization Cares More about Its Own Life Than the Lives of the Poor


Doherty, Brian, Reason


PAUL DIETRICH WAS visiting Mozambique's capital city, Maputo, during its civil war in 1984, when an educational billboard taught him a lesson he never forgot.

Dietrich, a former publisher of the old weekly Saturday Review, was in Africa working with a Catholic charity. He was driving in his Land Rover, the only working motorized vehicle for miles. Poverty-stricken people surrounded him, most of them on foot, though a lucky few rode oxen. The billboard was the only one he'd seen in all Mozambique. Though most of the chaotic, war-torn country was plagued by regular power outages, the sign had its own electrical supply. This billboard was paid for by the World Health Organization (WHO), the international bureaucracy created, in the words of its constitution, to "promote and protect the health of all peoples."

It urged the people of Mozambique to remember to buckle their seatbelts.

It also helped cement Dietrich's doubts about WHO'S vision and mission. After seeing that billboard, and contemplating what it said about WHO'S priorities and goals, he became one of WHO'S most vocal critics. In the early 1990S, Dietrich served on the development committee of the Pan American Health Organization (which functions as an American branch office for WHO). He has also been president of the Institute for International Health and Development. Dietrich wrote about WHO frequently for The Wall Street Journal, and provided material for exposes of WHO shenanigans on 60 Minutes and various TV documentaries in Europe (where WHO'S activities are minded far more closely than in the United States, even though the U.S. provides 22 percent of the organization's regular budget).

Dietrich publicly and repeatedly complained that WHO was a bureaucracy for bureaucracy's sake, mired in useless statement-making and conference-giving. He thought it focused too much on First World concerns--such as seatbelt campaigns and smoking--and not enough on the developing world's sick and poor.

For his troubles, Dietrich became the target of a WHO-sponsored investigator who dug into his and his wife's background, finances, and politics. Dietrich only learned of the investigation when a mole in WHO'S Geneva headquarters faxed him a copy of the final report. WHO singled out Dietrich, now an investment banker, in an August 2000 report that received heavy play in the New York Times and Washington Post. The report, dedicated to the tobacco industry, claimed Dietrich's motives were purely mercenary. He was named as a paid agent in a sinister international tobacco industry scheme to discredit WHO. The truth, Dietrich tells me, is far less sexy: A law firm he had worked for did work for tobacco companies, along with almost every other Fortune 500 company.

To WHO, which claims to be devoted to science in the name of public health, Dietrich's observations and conclusions should be nullified by its ad bominem assault. Dietrich's primary complaint, though, will resonate with anyone who assumes that an international health organization's resources should be primarily aimed at the direct control and eradication of infectious diseases, rather than at behavior modification programs concerned with such matters as seatbelts and smoking.

But WHO's agenda is more ambitious than merely bringing medical care to the world's disadvantaged. Health, in a definition the group adopted over 20 years ago, is "a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." That is a totalist vision, and an alarming one. Armed with a bureaucrat's mentality, an arsenal of questionable data and conclusions, and a billion dollars in taxpayer money donated by governments around the world, WHO's goal seems not so much to bring the world "health" as a physical condition as it is to bring the world under the control of the international mavens of "public health," the sociopolitical discipline.

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