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Bringing the World Health Organization Back to Health

CAMBRIDGE: Many life and death issues facing developing countries can only be addressed by international joint action. No lone African country, for example, can overcome the crushing burden of malaria, a disease that claims perhaps 1million lives per year, and which causes around 800 million episodes of illness per year. Current scientific knowledge is simply inadequate to face the challenge. The world, instead, relies on the World Health Organization (WHO) to address challenges such as this.

In recent years, however, the United States and other governments have squeezed the budget of the WHO to a point where it can not effectively carry out its global mission. It is desperately important that the world's governments now recommit to raise the budget of the WHO, as one of the most important steps available in the cause of global development and justice.

Start with two points. First, many of the crucial barriers to economic development are scientific rather than purely economic. All of the IMF-World Bank missions in the world are not going to overcome the problems of malaria, or drug-resistant tuberculosis, or even low agricultural productivity in the arid regions of Africa. These problems simply require new scientific and technical approaches.

Second, the needed science will not emerge from the poorly financed laboratories and universities of developing countries. It now takes around $300 - $500 million to develop a new vaccine, for example, a malaria vaccine. Only the major pharmaceutical companies, working in conjunction with basic and applied research centers around the world, can mobilize the necessary funding. The developing world, alas, contributes only a tiny fraction of worldwide scientific advance, and the major drug companies generally lack the market incentives to invest in diseases afflicting the poor people of the developing world.