Anne Applebaum on the WHO

Anne Applebaum’s column is not all friendly toward the World Health Organization (WHO), but she very much gets that, facing something like the threat of swine flu, it is exactly what we need.

The Geneva-based WHO is the organization we all turn to at times like this, and rightly so: With more than 60 years’ experience, and real achievements under its belt — it led the successful campaign to eliminate smallpox in the 1970s — the WHO may well be the only international organization that we cannot live without. When infectious diseases are spread rapidly across borders, WHO is expected to coordinate the scientific response of national public health officials, from France to Malaysia, as well as the global information campaign needed to explain it. No national government can do the same. [emphasis mine]

Most of Applebaum’s complaints about WHO have to do with what she calls particular UN culture and politics. Some of her critiques are legitimate, and aspects of the WHO, as with other UN agencies and the global body itself, should be reformed and improved. But the best way to do so is not to cut off UN appendages; rather, member states need to work together to improve, fund, and support them. In her last paragraph, it’s good to see that Applebaum gets that, too.

The truth is that we tend to treat the really important U.N. institutions the way we treat the local water utility: Most of the time we don’t care who runs it or how well — but in an emergency, we expect a superhuman response. Now, just as we might really be on the brink of an emergency, it is worth reminding ourselves that if we want the WHO to be there when we need it, the organization must be constantly monitored and fully funded. U.N. member governments should make absolutely sure it stays focused: after all, only the WHO is equipped to carry out the international monitoring of the spread of a new infectious disease. Let’s cross our fingers and hope that this time, they haven’t been distracted by something else. [emphasis mine]