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catallaxy in technical exile

Is the UN adding value?

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Some trenchant criticism of the UN capacity to move beyond talk to effective action. This concerns the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDG) project established five years ago to make an impact on poverty, hunger and ill-health for the world’s poorest citizens by 2015. The article claims that five years down the track there is not even a coherent plan to achieve measurable objectives.

It may be relevant to note that the economic historian and methodologist Mark Blaug spent some years in a UN agency writing papers on education for the Third World. In his memoire he admitted that he could not understand why he wasted so much time in a task that was palpably useless and ineffective, except that he was comfortable and well paid for his time. How many other UN functionaries might say the same thing in unguarded moments?

For example, according to WHO, about a billion people lack access to safe drinking water, while 80% of all illness in the world’s poorest regions is linked to water-bred diseases. Poor water and sanitation annually kills about five million people, according to the UN’s own statistics, and 50% of people in the developing world suffer from a disease associated with poor water quality and inadequate sanitation. Given these facts, you would think that there would be some carefully crafted plan, as part of the MDG strategy, for addressing these problems. Yet there is none.

What there is instead is a wealth of empty talk about action. Kofi Annan, for instance, speaks about the “sustained action across the entire decade between now and the deadline. It takes time to train the teachers, nurses and engineers; to build the roads, schools, and hospitals; to grow the small and large businesses able to create the jobs and income needed.” But this talk is disconnected from a credible strategic plan as to how such difficult goals can be met.
Compare this utter strategic disarray with the carefully thought out Grand Challenges in Global Health Project, for which the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is providing 450 million dollars, and which brings realizable plans to bear on 14 obstacles to a healthier world, and which actually offers the prospect, unlike the MDG, of improving the health of the world’s poorest people.

Bureaucracy Is Destiny
Take, for example, WHO, which has a major responsibility for three of the most crucial MDG. Of WHO’s biennium budget, roughly two-thirds go towards “base salaries and other costs” of WHO’s richly remunerated bureaucrats. Economists Robert Tollison and Richard Wagner have calculated that with the inclusion of overhead costs, for every two dollars WHO spends on programs it spends another eight dollars on salaries and overheads.

To understand just how this affects the MDG consider how one of those goals — reducing infant mortality — is affected by WHO’s distorted bureaucratic priorities. Diarrhoeal diseases, which are a major source of infant mortality, received less money ten years ago than WHO spent on its own office supplies. And during the same period, WHO spent more money for so-called “health promotion campaigns” than on combating the malaria (MDG goal 6) which kills about a million children a year, mostly in Africa.

Nor are these bureaucratic spending distortions an anomaly. In WHO’s most recent budget for 2006-7, support for WHO’s 140 country offices and their bureaucrats consumes $188 million scarce dollars. Of the almost $153 million allocated for arguably WHO’s primary mission — communicable disease prevention and control (MDG goals 4,5,6) — only 42% is to be spent at the country level while 58% is spent on the WHO bureaucracy in Geneva.

Ideology and Science

Fourth, success at anything as strategically ambitious as the MDG requires what planners call strategic alignment, that is an organization whose policies, people and structures work together toward a common purpose. The UN, however, is a case study in almost purposeful misalignment, particularly where its leftist ideology and good science intersect. And it is this misalignment that dooms the MDG. Consider some examples.

WHO’s action — along with its sister UN agency, the Food and Agriculture Organization — in requiring a host of regulations on food products made with gene-splicing techniques, a move based not on science but on WHO’s desire to embrace anti-GM activists, impedes the development of more plentiful and cheaper food and thus actively works against MDG 1, which is to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.

Finally, whereas the MDG first goal is to eradicate hunger, the UN and WHO, appear to believe that the real problem is not too little but too much food since they have decided to devote increasing attention and resources to the so-called “obesity epidemic”. Instead of devoting its resources to global hunger and despite the dramatic lack of evidence that obesity reduces lifespan, WHO proposes to focus on pushing for a global food treaty modeled on the recent WHO tobacco treaty that would restrict food marketing, raise taxes on so-called unhealthy foods and require a series of warning labels to distinguish ‘good’ from ‘bad’ foods. This in a world where the essential micro-nutrients like iron, zinc, iodine and vitamin A — all integral to MDG goals 1, 4, and 6 — are missing from about half the world’s diet.

Written by Admin

September 28, 2005 at 7:56 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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