Academic journal article IUP Journal of International Relations

Beyond Human Rights: International Organizations and the Challenge of Health Development in Africa

Academic journal article IUP Journal of International Relations

Beyond Human Rights: International Organizations and the Challenge of Health Development in Africa

Article excerpt


It is a truism that global health inequalities are wide and growing.1 In 2003, the late Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) Lee Jong-Wook noted:

Although aggregate global health indicators have improved substantially since the middle of the past century, the gross health inequalities highlighted in the Alma-Ata Declaration persist. Indeed, the gaps are widening between the world's poorest people and those better placed to benefit from economic development and public health progress.2

Poverty, malnutrition, high fertility, and poor health encapsulate the challenges facing Africa today. Juxtaposed with other regions of the world, Africa faces more serious health concerns, a heavy burden of diseases, and more severely constrained resources for tackling these problems. Maternal and infant mortality and morbidity remain high. More worrisome is the emergence of new diseases, notably the devastating HIV/AIDS epidemic and the recrudescence of tuberculosis both of which are ravaging Africa. In addition, the steady growth of chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease is posing new threats. A direct consequence of this is that the indicators for health development in Africa are dismal. About one in six African children die before their fifth birthday, with half of these dying from diseases preventable by vaccines, and one woman dies every two minutes from complications of pregnancy and delivery.3

These trends are occurring against a background of social, political and economic challenges in Africa. In many countries, poor economic performance, massive debt burden and drought, floods and other natural disasters have constituted a serious albatross to development of the health sector. Moreover, political turbulence, leading to civil strife and regional military conflicts, has disrupted natural development, including that of the health sector. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that Africa's health indicators are worse than that of other parts of the world.

Several scholars have argued that a complex relationship exists between health and development. Fogel argued that Britain's early industrial breakthrough was largely due to the mastery of high mortality and morbidity as a result of improvement in nutritional status and conquest of many contagious diseases from the late 18th century onwards.4 On the other hand, economic development can also facilitate financing of environmental, health and sanitation campaigns for education, immunization and screening.5 Moreover, social development, especially in the field of education, has been associated with improved health status through improved nutrition and reproductive health.6 However, it has been argued that macroeconomic changes may not filter down to benefit the whole population. Scholars have shown that many sound policies in economic terms, notably structural adjustment policies, have had devastating human effects in increasing poverty and maladministration of resources.7 WHO has attested the linkage between health and development when it stressed:

Any social and economic development program is primarily based on the availability and potential of human capital which is needed for developing various sectors of a country 's economy; its industry and its agriculture productivity depends to a considerable extent on the health and wellbeing of the labor force, because in order to mobilize human resources, there must exist the precondition that they are physically fit to be mobilized. Ill-health, undernourishment, poor environmental conditions and debility affect the development process.8

Therefore, it is a fact that when inequalities are such that the living standards of people are depressed, development aspects look gloomy. As Myrdal puts it, "Inequality and the trend towards rising inequality stand as a complex of inhibitions and obstacles to development and there is an urgent need for . …

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